Secondary menu

Electoral Insight – New Ways of Building Democracy

Electoral Insight – November 1999

Challenges for Electoral Authorities in New Democracies

Rafael López Pintor
Professor, Department of Sociology, Universidad Autónoma of Madrid, Spain
Senior Research Advisor, International IDEA

Counting the ballots at the 1996 presidential elections in Benin
Counting the ballots at the 1996 presidential elections in Benin
Photo: Dominique-Christine Tremblay

Election management in new and emerging democracies faces a formidable challenge. The integrity of the franchise at this early stage of democratization must be ensured by electoral authorities that are independent of political parties, and expected to meet international standards of good practice. The spread of multi-party elections across continents has created an unprecedented reality in world politics, which deserves a close look from both analysts and practitioners. It is the aim of this article to further explore this new reality, along the lines of my recent paper, sponsored by the United Nations Development Program, on Electoral Management Bodies as Institutions of Governance.Footnote 1

As highlighted in the concluding statement of a recent international workshop on the subject: This is a time for democracy. The key element of the democratic process is the periodic holding of free and fair elections, for which the existence of EMBs (Electoral Management Bodies) which are politically legitimate and technically efficient is a necessary condition. As a basic foundation for democracy, elections constitute the most conspicuous means of access by people to the democratic process and the institutions of representative government. Consequently, the presence of adequate EMBs turns out to be crucial for the electoral process to unfold in an inclusive, transparent and accountable manner.Footnote 2

Challenges on Governance

The major question in the heated arena of democratization, today as in the past, is whether safeguarding the franchise should be left in the hands of the executive branch of government alone, or whether pressures and controls from external agents are needed. Historical, as well as current, evidence speaks in favour of the latter scenario. The issue has to do with the fair practice and transparency of universal suffrage. And it seems that this cannot be pursued today in the same way as it was by older democracies during the second half of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century: through the long struggle of democratic forces against all-powerful governments that represented well-entrenched land-owning aristocracies and coalescing industrial-financial oligarchies. The largest part of that struggle took place amid acute social conflict and political turmoil, not excluding civil and international warfare, both in Europe and the U.S. By the end of World War II, among the ripe fruits of a bitter history, suitable conditions existed for elections to be safely run by the Ministry of the Interior, the Home Office, or by sheriffs or other local officials.

The democratization of the "third wave", and the elections that follow internationally monitored peace agreements after protracted civil conflicts follow a different scenario. For analytical and practical reasons, confusion should be avoided between historical phenomena that have little in common. In the past, we have elections properly run by the executive branch only after a century of conflict and gradually emerging controls from political parties, parliaments, neutral judiciaries and independent media. In contrast, current elections at an early stage of democratization are being held under conditions characterized by fast mobilization of populations, the dawning of the rule of law, weak political parties, and, frequently, not very independent media. It is in this latter context that electoral agencies are called to play, in the short term, the role that political parties, unions and other advocates of universal suffrage performed in the long term while struggling for the franchise in western Europe, the Americas, India, and other places.

A significant evolutionary trend in the institutional shaping of electoral bodies during the present period of universal democratization is that of elections conducted by electoral authorities with the legal status of independence from the executive branch of government, and with a permanent staff, national headquarters, and offices throughout the country. Historically speaking, elections exclusively managed by the executive branch are a residual category, not only in number, but also as a developmental pattern. Of the 27 most stable democracies in the second half of this century, only seven countries have this type of electoral authority, all of them in northwestern Europe, plus Switzerland, and they constitute 25 percent of all older democracies. A different pattern emerges in the remaining countries, where democracy was established later or where a transition to democracy is in progress. In this latter group, only one out of five countries has elections run exclusively by the executive branch. In contrast to countries with a longer democratic tradition and a centralized government – that is, countries in continental Europe and former colonies either from the French centralized tradition or in the British Commonwealth – government-run elections are very unlikely in new democracies. Furthermore, electoral reform in newly democratic societies and in some older democracies almost invariably moves in the direction of establishing, at least in law, independent electoral commissions, either with full responsibility for the electoral process or with supervisory powers over elections run by the executive branch.

From earlier in history to more recent times, elections were at first government-run, both in countries that followed the British common law and in those that followed the Roman–Napoleonic legal tradition. The main difference is that in the Anglo-Saxon world (common law), electoral administration has followed a more decentralized pattern, whereas in the Roman world (civil law), the central government has retained a higher degree of authority. Elections were traditionally considered a public service. It was the expansion of mass democracy after World War II and the more recent wave of democratization which have put into question the legitimacy of the executive branch playing the role of a "referee" in the competition for power. In this connection, it is not by chance that (a) some democracies as stable as the United States or Australia have established independent electoral commissions as recently as the 1970s and 1980s respectively; (b) most of the countries where elections used to be managed by the government have progressively established supervisory bodies with or without representatives of the political parties; and (c) the more recent thrust of change favours the establishment of independent electoral commissions, most often composed of representatives of political parties.

Although a developmental pattern emerges from historical and more recent experience in electoral administration, it would be naive to expect from the newly established bodies an actual status of political independence and professional expertise. Rather than political miracles, struggle among opposing forces is to be expected. On the one hand, there is the contradiction between the institutional model of electoral administration adopted in law (independent, permanent, and professional) and the real facts of life (varying degrees of independence, permanency and professionalism). On the other hand, there are the different arenas where the proponents of the ideals of independence and permanency compete with their opponents for the integrity of the franchise. Some elements in the new pattern are the same as in the past, some are different. On the one hand, the path towards independence is full of trouble and travail, since those with political power are unlikely to welcome willingly external controls wielded by other institutions. There is also pressure from opposing parties to replace incumbents, not to mention blunt attempts at the unfair manipulation of voters, and tampering with ballots. On the other hand, the whole journey could be shorter for these nations, if only because new allies of the franchise have emerged in the global village (i.e. more accessible education, international and domestic monitoring of human rights, timely media exposure, and more peaceful political conditions as the number of democracies keeps growing).

The ballot used at the 1990 presidential election in Haiti.
The ballot used at the 1990 presidential election in Haiti.

The main challenge at the present time arises precisely from the difficulties – both political and technical – of meeting the ideals of independence and professionalism. How can these ideals actually be achieved? This is first a matter of politics, and only secondly a matter of legal judgment and technical expertise. Independence from the political executive would actually imply adequate legal provisions and also a process that is congenial to them. The coalition of forces striving for freedom and the rule of law should take advantage of the founding stage of the new regime in order to establish a proper institutional structure. Peace agreement negotiations, constitution making and electoral reform would provide the main opportunities for bargaining and arranging for the necessary legal provisions and material conditions. In this connection, it is crucial that appointment methods be designed that preserve the electoral institution from control by incumbents (usually including a variety of candidates from different sources – the judiciary, political parties – approved by a supermajority in parliament). Also, electoral budgets should come from consolidated funds, and be directly arranged through standing committees of parliament, rather than handled through the ministry; and probably, as is often the case, electoral bodies should be entrenched in the constitution. In addition to the institutional architecture, for the electoral authority, whatever its legal shape, to function fairly, it is necessary that political parties be kept on board. As the main players at elections, parties and candidates, through their representatives, are politically entitled to direct and permanent contact with the electoral authority. Furthermore, regular contact between the latter and parliamentary committees would also be part of a scenario of transparency and democratic control. Similarly, the guardian of the franchise has the responsibility of and should be capable of enlisting and maintaining wide support among other key actors of the democratic process (i.e. the media, unions, churches, and human rights organizations).

Management Challenges

Some important questions at the managerial/technical level of electoral bodies are these: how extensive a bureaucratic organization is required for effective and efficient conduct of the polls? Which would be more suitable, a centralized or decentralized organization? How can elections be made cost-effective? What is the role of new technologies in election management? Although these obviously cannot be discussed at length within the scope of this article, I will offer some arguments that have been further elaborated in my above-noted paper.

First, on bureaucracy: it is not as important to have a large organization as it is to have an administrative machine that is adequate to the political, geographic, and financial circumstances of the country. Less debatable is the question of permanence and professionalism (endurance, standardized recruitment and training procedures, etc.). The maintenance of a civil service type of organization has historically proved more effective and efficient than ad hoc bodies in practically all fields of collective services involving large populations and the massive use of resources. How could it be different with elections? Experience has shown that permanent electoral bodies staffed by civil servants, even without much high-technology equipment, can operate at acceptable levels of efficacy and efficiency. The argument can be illustrated in countries like Botswana, India, Chile and Uruguay, where the electoral agencies have efficiently conducted multi-party elections during the largest part of this century, while developing their own professional staff, and despite economic difficulties, budgetary restrictions, and a lack of high-technology equipment.

Second, on the concentration of authority: whatever the model of administration formally defined in the law, two main factors necessitate a measure of decentralization. The first is the massive nature of elections; the second, the holding of local elections in almost every democracy. Regardless of a society's economic and cultural development, actual universal suffrage tends to be the rule, and elections have, therefore, grown to a truly massive scale. Efficient management of electoral services would ideally require a dispersion of decision making. More importantly, local elections have become a universal phenomenon, requiring local and regional electoral bodies to have a degree of autonomy. Unlike those of the past, today's democracies require political authorities at all levels to be elected by popular vote. In most of Latin America, for example, mayors and governors were first elected by direct popular vote as recently as the 1980s. In the new democracies of Africa and other regions of the world, local elections are being called soon after the first general elections, and sometimes even prior to them. A rule of thumb in this domain would be that of centralized authority and decentralized management.

Third, on cost-effectiveness: no systematic research has been conducted, and not even a methodology has been developed yet for the comparative study of election costs, as is widely illustrated by the Administration and Cost of Elections (ACE) projectFootnote 3 and the UNDP paper. Nevertheless, some preliminary conclusions can be drawn from the data of some 50 countries collected for that paper. One main factor in cost variations worth mentioning is the extent of previous experience with multi-party elections. Significant discrepancies exist among the costs of elections in stable democracies, those in transitional systems, and those that take place in the context of special peacekeeping operations. Elections in countries with more experience of multi-party elections are consistently less costly than in those where multi-party elections constitute a new undertaking. Interestingly enough, this tends to be the case regardless of the region of the world, the level of economic development and whether elections were interrupted by periods of military rule. As a statistical trend, the least costly elections are held in countries with lengthy electoral experience: the United States and most western European countries; Chile, Costa Rica and Brazil in Latin America; Botswana and Kenya in Africa; India and Pakistan in Asia; and Australia. At the other extreme, elections held as part of broader peacekeeping operations, as could be expected, are the costliest.

Finally, on the use of new telecommunications and computer technologies: these are here to stay, if only because of their declining costs and ever-growing capacities. By their mere existence, they put pressure on the administration of elections at its different stages: registration, voting, and counting; not to speak of office management. Nevertheless, new technologies by themselves will not improve the integrity and acceptability of electoral systems – lack of transparency and mistrust must also be overcome. It would always be wise to take into consideration the condition of the political process before adopting any new technology; most importantly, by including the political stakeholders in the decision making process, as well as in the application of the new technologies. At a more managerial and technical level, decisions on adopting new technologies should form part of strategic planning by electoral bodies, for which a degree of institutional permanence is necessary. As pointed out by senior electoral officials of Canada at different times,Footnote 4 not only do cost considerations (both start-up and long-term) require attention, but also the advantages and disadvantages of alternative technologies vis-à-vis the specific needs of the country, as well as problems of obsolescence and maintenance.

International Assistance and Networking

In the post-cold war democratization environment, elections and electoral management have transcended national borders to become an international endeavour in at least two senses. One has to do with political, financial and technical assistance from donor governments and international organizations. The other is professional networking among electoral authorities from various countries and regions of the world.

The international community has played a number of different roles in democratization processes world-wide. Its intervention has generally been considered effective in facilitating the democratization process and, in particular, the establishment of electoral bodies. In extreme crisis situations, the international community has sometimes literally taken over the organization of elections (i.e. the 1993 UN mission in Cambodia, and the current OSCE mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina). In other cases, a high profile role was played in the organization of elections in the context of the application of peace accords (i.e. El Salvador, Mozambique, and Haiti). It is generally acknowledged and has been documented that without an intervening international community, those elections would have not taken place. More common situations involve international financial and technical assistance to national authorities for the organization of elections in emerging and new democracies. This form of assistance has been considered generally appropriate and even decisive in some countries. As electoral bodies achieve organizational and operational improvements over time, they depend far less on administrative, management or operational support, although technical advice and financial assistance for elections and other governance-related areas will continue to be requested. It is relevant here to mention particular countries, such as Australia, Canada, Spain and Uruguay, whose national electoral authorities are especially active in assisting other electoral authorities, both through institutional initiatives and the contribution of high-ranking electoral officials as resource persons for international missions.

A different, but related phenomenon is the recent expansion of international professional associations of electoral authorities in several regions of the world. In the Americas, a number of such organizations exist: the Association of Electoral Institutions of Central America and the Caribbean (Asociacion de Organizaciones Electorales de America Central y el Caribe), created under the so-called Protocol of Tikal; the Association of Latin American Electoral Tribunals, created under the so-called Protocol of Quito; and the Inter-American Union of Electoral Institutions (Union Interamericana de Organismos Electorales), which integrates the former two associations and includes also Mexico, the United States and Canada. In democratizing eastern and central Europe as well as Africa, associations were recently created under the auspices of the International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES): the Association of Central and Eastern European Elections Officials (ACEEEO), established in 1991, and the Association of African Election Authorities (AAEA), which was endorsed by 14 countries of the region and established in 1997. In Asia, there is the Association of Asia Election Authorities (AAEA). In the Pacific region, there is an Association of Pacific Islands, Australia and New Zealand Electoral Administrators (PIANZEA). In addition, there is also a Commonwealth Association of Election Officers, and two U.S.-based international bodies: the International Association of Clerks, Recorders, Election Officials and Treasurers (IACREOT), and the International Institute for Municipal Clerks (IIMC). All these associations have been active in organizing regional conferences and workshops for election officials.


Electoral bodies shaped after an institutional model of independence and permanency are making a significant contribution to democracy and the rule of law. In a number of cases, exceptional performance by electoral authorities has been noted. More frequently, however, proof of the importance of their role comes from negative experiences when poorly managed elections have damaged the legitimacy of emerging democratic systems. Although independence and permanency by themselves, even if actually enforced, are not sufficient conditions to guarantee the practice of free and fair elections in an efficient manner, they create better opportunities for enhancing transparency and public confidence, and hence for safeguarding the franchise, both in the early stages of democratization and in the foreseeable future. They can also improve technical efficiency in the conduct of the electoral process.


Footnote 1 López Pintor, Rafael. (1999). Electoral Management Bodies as Institutions of Governance. New York: United Nations Development Program.

Footnote 2 International Workshop on Electoral Management Bodies as Institutions of Governance. Statement with conclusions, Mexico City, May 26-29, 1999.

Footnote 3 IDEA, UN, IFES. (1998). Administration and Cost of Elections (ACE) Project. CD-ROM made in Canada.

Footnote 4 Gould, Ron. (1997). "New Technologies of Modernization in Electoral Administration." Paper presented at Asian Democracy in Transition: Symposium on Asian Elections in the 21st Century in Manila, Philippines. Also, "International Workshop on Electoral Management Bodies as Institutions of Governance," address by Jean-Pierre Kingsley at the session on New Technologies. Mexico City, May 26-29, 1999.


The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.