Can International Election Monitoring Harm Governance?

May 15, 2012, 8:37 p.m.

In a new paper in the Journal of Politics, Alberto Simpser and Daniela Donno argue that high-quality election monitoring, by preventing certain forms of election fraud, can cause incumbent leaders to resort to tactics that have a negative effect on overall governance in the country.

Monitoring regimes in areas as diverse as nuclear power, armament and the environment play a crucial role in promoting compliance with international norms and commitments. By providing information about state behavior, monitoring can also facilitate international cooperation by alleviating fears that noncompliance will go undetected and unpunished. But can there ever be a downside to monitoring? We ask this question in the context of international election monitoring. Most countries today hold regular multi-party elections to fill political offices, and most such elections are monitored by international groups. Studies have shown that election monitoring missions can play a positive role by deterring fraud, increasing confidence in the electoral process, and serving as third-party mediators (Carothers 1997; Hyde 2007; Pastor 1998; Bjornlund 2004). Without denying these positive effects, we ask whether international election monitoring can also have unintended negative consequences.

Our inquiry is motivated by an intriguing, yet under-explored, trend. As election monitoring has increased, governments intent on cheating have learned to strategically adapt, relying less on election-day fraud, and instead increasing their use of pre-election manipulation that is less likely to be criticized and punished. Analysts have documented this strategic adaptation (Hyde and O’Mahony 2010), and explored how it creates new challenges for international election monitoring groups (Bjornlund 2004 ), and alters incentives for opposition parties (Beaulieu and Hyde 2009). But the consequences of strategic adaptation for institutional quality and governance in the country being monitored have not been explored.

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