In Box

When No One’s Looking

Election monitors aren't stopping violence -- they're just making sure it happens before they get there.

Illustration by Chris Gash
Illustration by Chris Gash

From Afghanistan to Indonesia, Georgia to Malawi, election season brings with it a time-honored tradition: the migration of international monitors to far corners of the world — eyes guarding against fraud, vote-buying, and outright cheating.

Advocates have long claimed that the presence of election-day observers, while certainly providing no guarantee, helps ensure free and fair elections and delegitimizes political actors who would try to rig the vote. But new research that examines 19 years of elections in Africa argues that, when it comes to stopping at least one type of election fraud — voter intimidation through violence — election observers aren’t putting an end to it; they’re just ensuring that it happens before they arrive.

Looking at the three months before 330 African election rounds from 1990 to 2009, Amsterdam-based political scientist Ursula Daxecker examined the effect that monitors from organizations like the United Nations, the European Union, and the National Democratic Institute had on election-related violence. What she found was alarming: The probability of violence in the three months leading up to elections increased a stunning 200 percent when international monitors were present for election day — an indication that the extra scrutiny may be having a perverse effect. What’s more, Daxecker found that the presence of monitors has no statistically significant effect on violence on election day itself.

Often, when an election turns ugly, observers look to indigenous factors for an explanation. Was an unpopular incumbent afraid of losing votes? Were there more fringe challengers contesting a wide-open ballot? Daxecker’s research serves as a warning not only that the worst election-related violence might go unseen by monitors, but that international forces play a role in how and when it unfolds — even when they have the best of intentions. It’s also a reminder that, for any country struggling with democracy, election day is just a small part of a much bigger picture.

Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer is the Europe editor at Foreign Policy. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and Forbes, among other places. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and master’s degrees from Peking University and the London School of Economics. The P.Q. stands for Ping-Quon.

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