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Comparative Assessment of Central Electoral Agencies

Introduction

The objective of this study was to provide an analysis of the governance arrangements for national elections in Canada compared to the governance arrangements for national elections in Australia, India, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. In consultation with Elections Canada, it was agreed that the comparative assessment would focus on certain key components of the governance arrangements in the six countries, without disregarding the contextual, organizational and procedural factors that would be relevant to drawing lessons for Canada.

The comparative assessment concentrates on the following components of electoral governance in each country:

Methodology

Much of the information for this comparative assessment came from an online search of secondary academic literature on electoral system management, published reports, legal mandates and official websites of the EMBs considered in this study.

Since official documents may not provide complete and current information and may not provide frank evaluations of performance, interviews were sought with senior election officers in all six countries. Elections Canada identified contacts in each of the other EMBs and gained agreement for the interviews. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with officials from these EMBs on a confidential, not-for-attribution basis. (A list of interviewees is provided in Appendix F.)

Criteria for Assessment

This section sets out the criteria used to assess the roles, structures and operations of the EMBs in the five countries that are being compared to Canada. We start from the premise that free and fair elections, conducted in a non-partisan, professional and efficient manner, cannot take place without an independent, credible, transparent, trustworthy and legitimate electoral authority that inspires public confidence.

Sound electoral governance arrangements contribute to well-conducted elections, to public trust and confidence in the electoral process and to democratic legitimacy for the outcomes. However, providing normative arguments and empirical evidence of the links between governance arrangements and such elusive, multi-dimensional concepts as quality, trust and legitimacy is inherently difficult because of the many factors that potentially affect elections and public perceptions of the electoral process.

Electoral authorities are not islands unto themselves within society. Located along the often blurred boundary between impartial administration and partisan politics, such authorities are highly exposed to influences from the environments that surround them. This means that electoral governance arrangements in any country reflect, to some not easily measured degree, the socio-economic and geographical circumstances of the country; its history, traditions, political culture and constitutional order; the interrelationships and dynamics of power among the different parts of the political system; the competitiveness of the party system; and the issues on the public agenda at a given point in time (Mozaffar and Schedler 2002, 13). As a consequence, isolating the separate contribution of electoral arrangements to a healthy democracy in a particular country is not straightforward and can be done only in a somewhat impressionistic manner.

Generalizing too easily from what appears to work well in other countries is risky because too little account may be taken of the distinctive context or environment in which each EMB operates as well as the scope of the responsibilities of those authorities and the resources they posses to fulfill their mandates. Transposing features from one electoral system to another must, therefore, be done very carefully in order to avoid unforeseen and perhaps unwanted consequences. This is not to say that we cannot draw both positive and negative lessons from the experiences of other countries.

In comparing the electoral governance arrangements in Canada to other countries, it is helpful to consider a number of foundational principles and values that should underlie the structures and processes of the electoral system. Such principles and values are typically rather general and even vague in nature. This means that countries can differ in how they interpret and apply such criteria in the initial design and any subsequent modification of their electoral governance arrangements as circumstances change within society and the political system. The generality of the criteria also means that there is always room for debate about whether existing structures and processes of electoral management in a given country adequately reflect and reinforce key criteria of democratic electoral management.

We used the following criteria for assessment to analyze the electoral governance arrangements in the six countries:

A detailed discussion of the meaning of these criteria as they have been used in the analysis to follow is provided in Appendix A.

Electoral governance involves more than the legal, logistical and mechanical dimensions of electoral administration. Those specialized activities are highly important in their own right, but they also reflect and reinforce important foundational principles and values of democracy.

The criteria for successful electoral governance are interdependent. They can both complement and contradict one another. Given that independence has become a compelling, internationally endorsed norm, we have made that criterion the focal point of the analysis, while not ignoring how it intersects with other important criteria. There is no perfect electoral governance model that can maximize the achievement of all criteria simultaneously – balancing and trade-offs are inevitably required.

Of particular interest to the analysis are the relative merits of single-headed agencies compared to multi-member commissions in how they uphold independence and other important criteria.

The next section provides an overview of the findings from the six country case studies and how they reflect the integrating themes identified above. The six subsequent case studies present more detailed evidence for the observations and claims made in the comparative assessment, and they examine in some depth the electoral management arrangements in each of the countries under review.