Comparative Assessment of Central Electoral Agencies
Appendix A – Defining the Criteria for Assessment
The criteria that we used to conduct the comparative assessment of the six electoral governance arrangements are defined as follows:
- Clear legal authority means authority is commensurate with the responsibilities assigned to an EMB. The legal mandate of an EMB is both enabling and constraining: it provides legitimacy for the EMB's actions as well as the legal means for it to carry out its work. At the same time, an EMB is obliged to respect the law, work within its parameters and enforce its provisions to the best of its ability.
- Independence refers to the insulation of electoral management, especially certain highly sensitive activities, from interference or undue influence by other institutions and actors. Most election officers and scholars regard independence as the single most crucial test of the soundness of electoral governance arrangements. We agree. It is necessary to recognize, however, that EMBs cannot be completely independent and autonomous because they must also be accountable and responsive to the body that establishes them.
The capacity to act independently matters more in relation to some functions of an EMB than others. Independence is crucial, for example, with respect to such legal and quasi-legal functions as regulation, investigation, adjudication and enforcement, all functions for which both actual and perceived impartiality and fairness must exist. Independence is also important when the mandate of the EMB requires it to provide independent policy advice that is informed by expert knowledge and devoid of political considerations. Many EMBs are also expected to engage in communication and educational outreach activities, and these activities should ideally be conducted in an independent, non-partisan manner. Independence is usually less complete with respect to such administrative matters as budgeting and staffing, where an EMB is required to negotiate with other parts of the governmental system.
An EMB cannot claim autonomy just because it is administratively convenient or even because a certain degree of independence has been long-standing. Rather, independence must be justified by upholding the essential values and properties of the institution, which are seen to be necessary for promoting a healthy democracy.
- Impartiality and fairness are two essential values to be protected by the condition of independence. An EMB needs some measure of insulation from outside pressures from various sources to perform in a professional and objective manner. For example, EMBs must have the authority and freedom to conduct a thorough investigation and reach an unbiased decision concerning a political party, a candidate, a voter or members of the media.
There are both procedural and substantive aspects to the notion of an impartial and fair election process. Regarding procedure, the law must be applied with diligence and due process, and there must be no hint of bias or favouritism. In terms of substance, decisions must be based on the provisions of the law, an accurate and valid interpretation of the facts and the application of sound professional judgments.
- Professionalism and expertise are meant to be hallmarks of sound electoral governance. In an established democracy like Canada, citizens see elections as routine events and give little thought to the complications of planning and executing a countrywide election on a single day, with the voting process taking place at the local level and with election officers called returning officers in charge. Ensuring that citizens know where and how to vote, making it convenient for them to do so, preventing possible abuses of the laws and arranging for the accurate and timely reporting of election outcomes – all pose significant operational challenges in a large and socially diverse country like Canada. The specialized knowledge and skills required to stage well-run elections comes from the background education, the experience and the ongoing training of EMB employees. In the EMB itself, there needs to be a culture of professionalism, accuracy, integrity, learning and improvement.
- Stability, consistency and reliability should be attributes of an EMB. These qualities enable the public to better understand and have confidence in the organization that oversees the electoral process. Stakeholders, including the institutions and actors most directly affected by the EMB's actions and those who have authority and/or influence over its role, need to develop mutual understanding and respect for their different roles in the electoral process. Respect and trust in the reliability, consistency, impartiality and fairness of an EMB takes time to develop and can be quickly lost when allegations of bias or incompetence are made. Relative continuity in the structures and procedures of an EMB also allows cumulative knowledge and skills to develop and enables a strong, shared culture of professionalism, precision and integrity to emerge.
Over time, there will be changes in the political system, IT, public opinion and so on, and these changes may require modifications to the electoral governance arrangements. Given the central importance of such arrangements to achieving a healthy democracy, any such institutional modifications should preserve the underlying foundational principles and the distinctive competencies that an EMB will have developed over time.
- Economy, efficiency and effectiveness are three closely related criteria. In the narrowest sense, EMBs exist to support well-run elections in which national votes are held in as economical and efficient a manner as possible while having regard for the quality of the voting process. Effectiveness refers, in part, to the accuracy and timeliness of reporting results, the limitation on the number of controversies over the process and the results, and the satisfaction of voters, parties and candidates with the process.
A broader measure of the effectiveness of EMBs is achieving quality elections, a term that is subjective and therefore potentially controversial. For our purposes, a quality election takes place when there is strong and informed elector participation, when there are no or few instances of illegalities or attempts at undue influence and when the results are seen to be accurate and legitimate. Very few attempts have been made to develop an assessment framework identifying empirical measures of quality that could be used to compare different countries or compare improvement over time in a single country (Elkit and Reynolds 2005).
- Transparency, responsiveness and accountability
Transparency is a highly prized value in a democracy because it supports the public's right to know. Transparency is also a means of supporting both effectiveness and accountability in electoral management. It can help to prevent, detect and correct election irregularities. It provides one basis for informing and educating the public; it also provides a basis for holding EMBs accountable for their performance (Mozaffar and Schedler 2002, 10).
Responsiveness refers to the openness of an EMB to changing conditions in the external environment and its willingness to adjust its policies and practices to meet emerging challenges. It involves consulting with citizens, parliamentarians and party officials to obtain feedback and advice on how the electoral process can be improved. The relationship between an EMB and political parties involves an inherent tension: they are the primary targets of the rules governing elections, but at the same time, parties in government and the legislature assign the EMB its mandate and grant it the authority and resources needed to perform its functions. The ideal relationship between an EMB and party officials might be described as "cordial, but not cozy." Both the actuality and the appearance of undue responsiveness to partisan and political concerns must be avoided.
In general, accountability means being required to answer for the exercise of authority and the use of public money based on providing valid information about performance. Electoral administration involves exercising discretionary authority and professional judgment within the framework of both the "hard law" of legislation and regulations and the '"soft law" of administrative policies and codes of conduct. Formal rules set the boundaries for behaviour, but controversial situations will arise that require judgment about the facts, the interpretation of the rules and how they should be applied. When an EMB exercises discretion, its neutrality or competence can be challenged – hence, the insistence on accountability.