Why elections fail

The legitimacy of a government depends on whether the voters believe that the election reflects their wishes. Failure can create civil unrest and violence. The rule of law suffers, and the government has difficulty running the country. Decline follows, exacerbating public disobedience. It is a pattern common to failed states.

An election is a complex exercise with an immutable deadline. Failure looms.

A government willing to subvert the election to be re-elected has a range of opportunity. This is particularly true when the Electoral Management Body (EMB) lacks independence. Politically motivated appointments of commissioners, particularly the chair, is particularly undesirable, and frequently leads to suspect elections.

Detailed planning is key to success. EMBs adopt the professional project planning tools necessary to manage their elections, but in an election, it is rare to meet a professional project planner giving guidance on getting the benefits from those tools.
Budgets are a constraint, and planning mistakes and missed deadlines force changes with costs. When the commission has ignored donor recommendations, the donors are disinclined to pay to fix the mistakes they anticipated. The negotiations about finance leads to further delay, and crises dominates operations. A failed election results.

Technology is a challenge. It is often portrayed as the solution. Software is not a substitute for the disciplines required to run an efficient election. The introduction of complex technological solutions frequently exacerbates existing problems, particularly when they are untried, and implemented under unrealistic timeframes.

At the core of the EMBs operations are the voter register and the result reporting systems. These data are confidential, and security is crucial. However, the biggest risk of fraud, as in commerce, is insider intrusion. Paradoxically, at EMBs, this is where the least controls are found. Manipulation of the results is becoming increasingly evident, and the international communities unwillingness to expose the fraud for fear of undermining the legitimacy of elections is reducing the urgency to address the problem.

Election observation missions have the potential to mitigate the risk, but that will not happen until they introduce systematic controls in their reporting that ensures the election fraud is detected, quantified, and exposed in real time.

Many developing countries do not have a formal address system. Allocation of voters to polling stations is dependent on locating the polling stations close to where the voters live. Voters are disenfranchised when they do not know where they are listed to vote.

When election results are contested, the Dispute Resolution Body must be respected, and should announce judgement within a strict timeframe.
Identification of voters is a challenge that continues to undermine the credibility of elections. Building an independent identity framework is expensive, often duplicating the efforts of other government agencies that are obliged to know their clients.

Commerce offers some solutions.

Ensuring that the results are accurate requires having systems and procedures that mitigate fraud and errors, ensuring that pronouncements that elections are free and fair are more than marketing hyperbole, and that they are beyond dispute. An interim audit well before the election provides the confidence that the results can be relied on. Ensuring that operational internal controls based on the principles of separation of duties and reconciliation gives stakeholders advance warning of potential problems. When the controls are wanting, the commission have time to implement improvements, and the potential for an audit of the results can be anticipated. When the commission admits the deficiencies and implements improvement, a second interim audit acts as confirmation that the changes are real.

If the commission fails to remedy the deficiencies, stakeholders are alerted to adopt alternative ways of checking that results are accurate. Parallel Vote Tabulation (PVT) is an option.

Some leading international election observation organizations use ODK to facilitate observation reporting. This platform can be readily adapted to PVT, and with co-operation between local and international observers, it is possible to replicate the official result reporting system ensuring that detection of errors or manipulation of results is detected and quantified, as it happens.

Planning complex projects is a profession, and until the commissioners and donors start to appreciate that professional guidance is necessary, failed elections resulting from missed deadlines will continue to bedevil democracies.

The solution to voter identification is co-ordination and cooperation between agencies and the building of a framework that provides businesses with confidence that the identity system confirms ID reliably. Privacy activists raise a legitimate concern that a unified identity platform places citizens at risk. The answer is the building of secure systems supported by careful legislation that severely punishes failure to keep the data safe and the theft or manipulation of the data for illegitimate purposes.

The cost of elections can be alleviated. The coordinated sharing of resources between EMBs is possible. Similarly, building a modular open source election platform for voter registration and result reporting would spread the cost of development, and allows the sharing of innovative solutions to common problems.

Undermining the implementation of these solutions is a denial of these problems exist and a lack of cooperation between government agencies and international donors. The United Nations which is best placed to lead the change is dysfunctional and often more a cause of the problems than a source of solutions.

Until we have change, we will continue to have failed elections.

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