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.

More at: Why elections fail

Let’s have better elections

A flawed election is better than no election. While in many countries that’s true, it should not be allowed to set the standard, as it does far too often.

Managing ballots and ensuring that they are all accounted for and properly tallied and accurately reported is analogous to accounting for all the transactions that occur in a cash business and ensuring that all the money is banked. It is logical that the controls that exist to make sure that cash doesn’t disappear should be found in the systems used for elections, but usually they aren’t.

That’s baffling.

In a business the primary controls are separation of duties, balancing the figures, and reconciling the data to other reliable figures. The person handling cash doesn’t handle goods. The person issuing the goods doesn’t handle the cash. The stocks are reconciled to the sales. Sales are reconciled to the money banked. The money banked is reconciled to the bank statements. Differences in the reconciliations precipitate investigation until they are satisfactorily resolved.

In a good business the systems report to management immediately when there is any attempt to circumvent the controls. And management makes sure that they know what’s going on.

In an election the ballots are the business’ equivalent of cash. The ballots used must balance with the number of voters authenticated against the polling lists. The number of voters that voted must balance to the number of voters authenticated.  A number of voters authenticated must balance to the independent tallies of voters that entered the polling station to those that left it, less the number of people who could not be authenticated. The number of votes counted must balance to the number of ballots cast less the number of spoiled ballots.

The people counting the number of voters are not the same as those who authenticate them to the polling lists. The people counting the votes are not the same people who issued the ballots to the voters.

At each stage each person responsible for a task should be reporting the figures to the electoral management body so that there is no opportunity for collusion. The central system can then perform the reconciliations automatically, and when something doesn’t balance, the system should notify management to initiate an immediate investigation.

In most elections it doesn’t happen like that.

It is up to observers, disenfranchised voters, and the losing candidates to detect and report irregularities. That’s not a system.

Usually it is only when the ballots are returned to the election management body that the reconciliations are done, if at all, sometimes days later.

When the announcement of the result has already been delayed by the logistical difficulties of getting the ballots back to the central electoral management body, the revelation that potential irregularities will further delay the outcome of the election raises suspicion and undermines the legitimacy of the result in the minds of the electorate.

The proposal that these basic controls should exist is frequently countered with the excuse that the infrastructure is not available and that developed country solutions are too expensive and won’t work in places where the electricity is unreliable and the Internet access is almost nonexistent.

And yet those are the countries that are leading the world using SMS to meet the public’s desperate need for banking services. That works fine! It can work for elections too.

Recently SMS technology was adopted for the Kenyan presidential election and it failed miserably. The lack of transparency as to what went wrong suggests that it was not the technology, but the implementation that was to blame.

Introducing these basic controls will, in the absence of massive collusion, eliminate ballot stuffing, manipulation of the results after capture, and many of the elemental errors that often contribute to lack of voter credibility.

Reading through the curricula of the political science degrees at the leading universities reveals that accounting is not a course that is offered. Perhaps that explains why the people advising election commissions don’t promote those controls that exist in well-run businesses.

That should change.

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Time for a Mandela moment

Muhammad Morsi, the winner of the presidential election in Egypt, does not have a real mandate. That’s an opportunity.

Mr Morsi was not even the Muslim Brotherhood’s first choice. He was put forward to stand after the Brotherhood’s primary candidate was disqualified.

The numbers tell the story. In the first round 11.5% of the registered voters gave Mr Morsi their support, with a low turnout of 46%. In the run-off, the turnout increased to 51%, a sure sign that people were voting against, rather than for one of the candidates who stood on opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Even the final tally of 51.7% of valid votes in favor of Mr Morsi is tentative.

In 1994 there were numerous predictions that South Africa would descend in chaos after the elections there. One man made sure that it did not happen – Nelson Mandela. He did it by looking after everyone’s interests, caring about what was important to them.

He also made sure that South Africa had a solid constitution that entrenched the principles of equity, freedom and the protection of rights and human dignity.

Mr Morsi has already started on that route, saying “I have no rights, only responsibilities. If I do not deliver, do not obey me.”

Now this quiet man needs to let his actions speak.

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