Friday, October 12, 2012

Who Should Observe?

Georgia's recent election yielded many surprises, including the strong performance by Georgian Dream and the relatively quick and decisive announcement of failure by President Mikheil Saakashvili. A story that received scant attention was the decision by the Central Electoral Commission to deny registration to the US-based NGO, Committee for Open Democracy, that was conducting observation and analysis of election administration.*

According to the COD at its press conference, the primary reason for denial was the organization's resistance to disclosing its donor list. The Economist chided COD for not revealing its funding sources, suggesting that the case provides "insight into the potential pitfalls of private companies working within a sensitive sphere which has traditionally been the preserve of governmental and intergovernmental actors." COD is a non-profit, but it occupies a unique space between government-sponsored observation missions and large 501(c)(3) non-profits, like the Carter Center, that also engage in election observation. It seems that the unspoken question regarding registration related to the organization's objectivity and whether or not private donors would influence the content of the election analysis. Of course, this question could also be directed at all other brands of election observation groups.

The landscape of election observation has been changing, and organizations like COD are but one example of this change. No longer the sole purview of governments or international governmental organizations, the practice of observation is becoming more diverse. In addition to the privately-financed COD, crowdsourced observation projects, like Georgia's own Elections Portal, and Maidan Monitoring in Ukraine, offer another approach to observation and different source of data.

Does more observation lead to "better" observation? Assuming that a proper definition of "better" observation could be developed, this is an empirical question that the observation community could - and should - address. Indeed, if more organizations made their data publicly available, scholars and journalists could potentially assess "house effects" akin to those in public opinion polling and develop more precise measures of electoral integrity. While publishing data would require safeguards to protect individuals in the polling stations, the data could be made anonymous and could better inform all interested parties about how assessments of election-day activities are crafted.

*For full disclosure, I served on the COD's Ukraine local election mission in 2010 and anticipate participating in future deployments. The mission was managed professionally in 2010 and the report was careful to speak only to the observations on the ground.

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