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Enhancing electoral integrity in modern day society: A role for the UK?

Article by Dame Audrey Glover

October 19, 2021

Enhancing electoral integrity in modern day society: A role for the UK?

Promoting and upholding electoral integrity around the world is an important way to support open societies internationally. It is an area where the UK can play a significant role in assisting to build international election observation capacity. However, before looking at what can be done in detail, it would be useful to assess where election observation stands today.


Election observation post-1990

Initially, there was great enthusiasm shown for democracy and elections in the early 1990s at the end of the cold war. To be able to vote for whom one wanted was a new reality for many people. Elections were acknowledged as being the cornerstone of democracy and the ultimate display of human rights because they involved the rights of assembly and association, freedom of the media and the right to vote. Elections were recognised as being a crucial step in a country’s development, with the potential benefits of election observation being well understood. The process could play an important role in promoting transparency and accountability as well as enhancing public confidence in the electoral process. To achieve this end, elections needed to be observed and reported on in order to assist and guide countries with their electoral development. International observation by the UN and the Organisation of American States goes back nearly 40 years. Against this background, election observation quickly developed from a ‘one day’ event, to a more thorough scrutiny of the whole electoral process from start to finish.


The rights associated with elections are intended to enable a voter to vote freely without any pressure and to make a real and informed choice of a candidate thanks to an independent media.

  • All candidates are expected to be able to campaign on the same footing against a backdrop of equal and universal suffrage;
  • Voters must be confident that their vote can be cast freely in secret, kept secure and counted correctly; and
  • Above all a voter must have confidence in the system as a whole and of course women, minorities and the disabled must all be allowed to participate.


Election observation organisations

An increasing number of different bodies now observe elections: international organisations, international parliaments, international NGOs, Civil Society organisations and domestic NGOs. The ODIHR/OSCE was one of the first international organisations to undertake comprehensive election observation. OSCE missions are either ‘Full’ with a Core Team, Long Term Observers (LTOs) and Short Term Observers (STOs) or ‘Limited’ without STOs. Over the years the ODIHR has developed an excellent methodology for observing elections and frequently forms a common endeavour with the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE. Most Election Observation Missions (EOMs) around the world operate according to principles which are basically similar, but there is no universally agreed document containing election principles or how to observe them.[1]


Comprehensive observation enables missions to look at issues which can have a profound effect on the conduct of an election such as voter and candidate registration, training of local election commissions, the campaigns of candidates, the operation of the media and access to it for all candidates, financing of the media and TV and the candidates’ campaigns and moreover whether there is an effective complaints and appeal system.


Election observation today

More recently, election observation has become more complex and the popularity of and enthusiasm for EOMs around the world has distinctly waned. Why is this?


First, over the last 18 months COVID has put a damper on observation. It is no longer easy for observers to go to other countries to observe elections. The result: they are usually ‘Limited’ elections which means that there are no STOs. As a result there is no systematic observation of voting, counting and tabulation on Election Day. Consequentially there can be no in-depth report on the whole of the election process.


Second, due to current circumstances states often have financial overspend problems and therefore, there is less money to spend on financing Long Term and Short-Term Observers. Consequently, they have often been obliged to limit the number of elections to those in which they will send observers and have to decide on which elections they will send them to. In some instances ‘Full’ or ‘Limited’ Missions have been replaced by smaller Expert Missions which cannot report on the whole election. Even before COVID-19 donor countries were proving to be less willing to support international observation and have sent less observers to OSCE Missions. They have also not been sending observers to conflict affected countries where security costs are very high.


Even more importantly, governments who are in power wish to stay there and manipulate elections in order to be able to do so and they have become smarter in achieving this. Instead of stuffing ballot boxes and winning with 95 per cent of the vote they have started, for example, to make it difficult for voters entitled to vote to register; redrawn electoral boundaries to their advantage; made some polling stations inaccessible; and disenfranchised voters by making it obligatory to produce certain documents, like a driving license (which not everyone has). In addition, the intimidation of civil servants and the buying of votes is taking place. In some instances the playing field is tilted before Election Day, making it hard to prove fraud and consequently ensuring victory. These practices are of course totally unacceptable because elections are for voters to choose those whom they wish to govern them not for the government of the day to choose. Everyone who is entitled by law to vote should not be prevented in any way from being able to do so. Inclusivity is paramount, particularly in relation to minority groups. COVID has provided a successful smoke screen for many countries to introduce legislation curtailing a voter’s rights without being detected until it is too late. Countries are also limiting the number of observers they will allow into their country to observe an election, although this is the prerogative of the election observation body to decide how many observers they need. This means that observation will not take place in that country. This happened recently when the ODIHR pulled out of observing the Russian election because the authorities wanted to reduce the number of observers. Corruption is rife and truth in short supply.


Another problem of today, which creates challenges in relation to election observation, is observing the media.


A short time ago the purpose of media observation was to see whether coverage of elections was fair, honest and representational in relation to newspapers (local and national), TV and the radio. That is often not the case today. In addition to the traditional coverage, media observation now includes social media, ‘bots’, fake news, hate speech, foreign interference, and cyber-attacks. Missions are finding it difficult to devise a methodology to report upon all forms of social media because of cost and access to social media companies’ data. Online violence especially against women in politics drives many potential candidates out of the process because action being taken against the perpetrators is unlikely.


An alarming development is the bleak picture that exists in relation to the treatment of female and male journalists who are being physically attacked, intimidated, threatened, and murdered. Female journalists are particularly vulnerable. The various tactics which are used against them are calculated to reduce the ability of an opposition to campaign and negates the concept of informed choice.


It is a feature of the times that verbal, written interference and physical attacks on the press is not solely done by governments but by businesses as well. Journalists are subject to vexatious legal threats to keep them quiet. These are referred to as Strategic Litigation against Public Participation (SLAPPS).


These practises have made it even more difficult for voters to decide where the truth may be, and it is beginning to result in a reduced turn out by voters and spoilt ballot papers. It is also having the effect of creating an even greater divide between those who are in power and younger members of society and minorities who increasingly feel that they are being ignored. However, there is some evidence that voters are beginning to give voice to their concerns and show their dissatisfaction for their leaders by peaceful and persistent demonstrations.


Furthermore to the above concerns key recommendations – that always appear in the Final Report of an election Observation Mission, such as those of the ODIHR – intended to improve the electoral process in a country are being consistently ignored. They repeatedly appear in Final Reports of an election in the same country without being acted upon thus demonstrating a weakness in effective election observation.


This trend is being exacerbated by COVID-19. The effects of climate change are becoming ever more apparent and are involving enormous amounts of expenditure by governments, and the rise in the cost of living is having a negative effect too. Other serious challenges will doubtless be posed by new technology and the rise of populism and nationalism. What is to be done to reverse this trend when the gulf between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ is widening around the world?


Possible solutions

It is encouraging to see that the UK is interested in increasing its support for electoral integrity. In the recent Integrated Review reference is made to establishing a new UK capability “to support election observation and activity to strengthen existing multilateral efforts.”[2] Much needs to be worked out what this capacity will be and how it can provide value given the wide range of bodies already well involved in this work.


My conclusions are as follows:

  • I would suggest that the launch of this ‘UK capability’ needs to be accompanied by a significant amount of publicity alongside as much support from different observation bodies involved in this field as possible.
  • Given that it would take time to set up a unit in the FCDO – if it proves feasible to do so – to observe elections and given that the WFD already has significant election observation experience and is the FCDO’s ‘arm’s length body’ for international democracy assistance, a capacity could be developed there. For example, the WFD could be a resource, supplying election experts to FCDO posts, other countries and organisations who request them rather than trying to organise full EOMs around the world at this stage. That would require considerable financial resources and could come later and play a similar role to that of the Carter Centre, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute in the US.
  • Three main models, possible modus operandi, should be considered: establishing long-term partnerships; ‘ad hoc’ partnerships for specific elections; and maintaining flexibility to move around different options in order to manage ‘ad hoc’ needs as they arise. These would make excellent guiding principles for their operation. Flexibility and adaptability could assist in making election observation more effective.
  • Working with local NGOs who obviously know about elections and with international election organisations, pooling resources is a practical way to ensure that all aspects of an election are covered. This is particularly important now, since there is currently a general lack of financing and personnel. It would be a good way to concentrate expertise and maximise resources. Those who are observing together should of course all assess the elections against the same principles as much as possible.
  • It would be most helpful to election observation in general if the UK and other international actors could strongly advocate that the Recommendations in a Final Report are implemented within a limited time period after the publication of a Final Election report and not in the year before the next election. The utility of election observation can only be maximised if Recommendations are effectively addressed. At present they are not implemented, despite offers of assistance from the observing bodies and in the absence of enforcement machinery to make states comply. The OSCE, for example, has long tried to encourage states to implement its recommendations but with limited success. The position should be changed if election observation is to be more effective.
  • Media freedom, inclusivity and social media, on which it is suggested that observation missions should concentrate, are all very important aspects of an election but when observing, however, it is important that all facets of it are observed. Election financing of the media and of the candidates needs to be observed by financial experts as well.
  • The implementation of legal provisions in relation to an election overall is also important. The law, for example, must allow anyone who wishes to take legal proceedings in relation to the election to be able to have their case dealt with prior to Election Day. It is also important to ensure that where electronic devices are used for voting that appropriate legal safeguards are in place. The issues at the core of new technologies are accountability, transparency and confidence. The system must be secure, have the capacity for an independent audit and there should always be a paper trail.
  • Trying to observe ‘social media’ and other interferences with an election is difficult, labour intensive and requires specialists. Some organisations such as the EU, ODIHR and the OAS are already developing a methodology to deal with these new intrusions, to which WFD has contributed a valuable input. However, more needs to be done and election observation organisations should work together to come up with a comprehensive set of guidelines to be applied when observing media by all observer organisations. WFD can help to do this on behalf of the UK Government given its ongoing participation in these efforts.
  • Although slightly outside the remit of the Initiative, it is also essential to ensure that the youth of today are not excluded from the political process. The UK Government might like to consider what it can do to encourage establishing and developing Youth Parliaments through working with organisations that have parliaments as for example the OSCE and the Council of Europe. The young have voices and views and many of them will be the Members of Parliaments of tomorrow. Now might be a good time to energise young minds and empower the next generation. Consideration should also be given as to how to engage citizens more in politics and hear their views before an election takes place.


The Initiative is a most helpful and timely suggestion to revive and support the valiant efforts that some organisations are making to continue with election observation and to make it even more effective than it is now. It deserves the active support of the world of election observation in order to obtain its goals and I am sure that the WFD will be successful in reviving the value and importance of election observation and electoral integrity.


Dame Audrey Glover has been involved at a senior level with the OSCE for many years. She has been head of OSCE/ODIHR Election Assessment Missions (with rank of Ambassador) on many occasions including: Turkey (May-July 2018), Italy (February-March 2018), FYROM (September-October 2017), USA (Oct-Nov 2016), Mongolia (May-July 2016), Azerbaijan (Sept-Nov 2010) and Georgia (Apr-Jun 2010). She had previously served as Director of the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) at the OSCE from 1994 to 1997. She has also served as Senior Adviser to the Ministry of Human Rights in Iraq (2004 – 2006), Head of the UK Delegation to the UN Human Rights Commission (1998-2003), Convener of International Law Course at Lauterpacht Centre Cambridge (1998 – 2011) and Legal Counsellor at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (1989-1994). She is a board member of the Prison Reform Trust, the Graham Turnbull Trust and is an adviser to the board at the British Institute of Human Rights.


[1] The 2005 UN Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation and Code of Conduct for International election observers has been signed up to by a number of the more respected international observer bodies but this far from universally used as a current reference point, particularly by groups such as the CIS which have not signed the declaration. For more see: ACE Project, Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation,

[2] HM Government, Global Britain in a competitive age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, March 2021,

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