Tuesday, May 3, 2011

What Constitutes a Credible Election?

Elections do not create democracy. But, elections are a potent symbol of democracy and a concrete manifestation of expression of the will of the people, and are thus an essential underpinning of democracy.

In order for elections to be meaningful, however, they must have credibility. They must truly represent the will of the electorate. What makes an election a credible exercise in democracy?

Universal suffrage: When every eligible voter is properly registered, has unfettered access to information about the issues, and can cast a ballot without fear of intimidation or violence, the basis of a credible election will have been established. This is a necessary first step, but in and of itself; is not sufficient to make an election credible.

Independent verification: In order for the outcome of an election to be trusted, especially in situations where there has been conflict or previous flawed or contested elections, it is important that there be some form of independent verification of the lead up, voting, vote counting, and aftermath of an election. This is usually in the form of external election monitors. Contrary to urban legend, the purpose of external monitors is not mainly to assure foreigners of the results, but to secure the confidence of voters.

Abiding by the results: The final, and perhaps most important, step in ensuring credible elections is a commitment by all participants to respect and carry out the wishes of the electorate as expressed by their votes. An election can be run efficiently, media can be free to report, and people can be allowed to vote in an environment free of violence and coercion; but, if at the end of the day, individuals or institutions exist that can arbitrarily nullify the results, the process will have been a waste of money and time, and can set the cause of freedom and democracy back significantly.

A credible election is not just an election that allows the people to express their will, but it is one where that will is respected and carried out.