Democratic elections serve two essential functions in any country: to provide the vehicle through which the people express their will as to who shall have the authority to govern; and to resolve peacefully the competition for governmental power. Through democratic elections citizens hold incumbents to account for their performance and promise to hold to account those who seek to be elected.
The obligation of governments to organise genuine elections, based on universal and equal suffrage, is interwoven with the right of citizens to participate in government and public affairs. Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that the basis of the authority of government derives from the will of the people expressed in periodic and genuine elections. Article 25 of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states the governmental obligation to provide each citizen with the right and opportunity, without discrimination or unreasonable restriction, to vote and to be elected at genuine elections.
Citizens not only have a right to participate in elections, but also the right to know for themselves whether the electoral process is valid and free of corruption. The right to information is integral to electoral rights because it is impossible to participate meaningfully without information needed to make informed electoral choices. Access to information about electoral processes, including government held electoral data, and the steps taken by governmental institutions to establish accountability in the electoral context is fundamental to creating and reinforcing public confidence in the integrity of elections and the government that derives from them.
Genuine elections require administrative measures that ensure political impartiality of state institutions and personnel, vigorous enforcement of equality before the law and equal protection of the law. Unless the population is assured that citizens can participate in electoral processes free from the harms of violence, intimidation, threat of political retribution and other forms of coercion – and unless the population believes that votes will be accurately counted and honoured – barriers may undermine participation and the credibility of the electoral mandate. Unless electoral competitors are assured that they will be able to participate free from such harms and that they will have access to redress, including effective remedies for violations of their political rights, they may either choose not to participate or to turn to “self-help”, such as political violence.
Even in established democracies maintaining public confidence in administrative impartiality and effectiveness can often become points of sharp controversy. Moreover, where electoral problems are significant and transparency is lacking, public trust in government can be severely damaged, which is hard to repair in any country. That damage can have important effects on governmental stability.
The growing arena of campaign and political finance is also important to electoral integrity. The role of money in politics, whether from private individuals or corporations, or whether from legal sources or organised crime, can impact significantly upon who competes in elections, how well they are able to spread their messages to the electorate, how they are able to develop their other organisational efforts and potentially how they may perform if they enter government (Transparency International, 2013; Öhman and Zainulbha, 2009; International IDEA, Political Finance Database; Open Congress, International Campaign Finance Literature Review). Attention is increasingly turning to how to control the impact of money in politics so as to nurture its positive aspects, while controlling and counteracting negative influences.
This topic has been developed by the National Democratic Institute. The lead author was Patrick Merloe with contributions from Michelle Brown and Tova Wang. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
Examples in Practice
Canada’s electoral management body allows citizens to file complaints online
Elections Canada is an independent, non-partisan agency that reports directly to Parliament. It is responsible for conducting election at all levels of government, administer political financing provisions, monitor compliance and enforce electoral legislation. It is also mandated to conduct voter education and information programmes, and provide support to the independent boundaries commissions in charge of adjusting the boundaries of federal electoral districts.
Elections Canada also has an Access to Information and Privacy Directorate within the commission itself, which is responsible for processing information requests in accordance with Canadian freedom of information legislation.
Elections Canada’s website www.elections.ca/home.aspx provides information on a broad range of election processes, including about methods for public scrutiny, information about lodging electoral complaints and historic election data, including turnout and results information. Its website also allows citizens to file complaints, presents definitions of electoral crimes and provides information about cases referred for prosecution.
Conflict of interest rules protect the independence of South Africa’s Electoral Commission
According to the South African Electoral Act from 1998, election observers must disclose to the Independent Electoral Commission any relationship that could lead to conflict of interest regarding the performance of their duties as observers. The law also states that these observers are not to accept any gifts or favour from a political party, organisation or person involved in the election process, and not participate in any function or activity that could lead to a perception of sympathy for a particular candidate or political party.
Croatia publishes elections campaign finances online
In 2011, Croatia enacted the Political Activity and Election Campaign Finances Act. This law requires political parties to disclose detailed financial reports on political campaigns during the campaign period. It also requires parties to open a separate bank account for all financial transactions related to election campaigns to facilitate monitoring.
Croatia has recently taken additional steps to ensure that this law provides for maximum transparency by making all the collected campaign finance data available to the public through a searchable database. Every candidate is now required to fill out a form with certain details and submit it to the national or local Electoral Commission. Each donation and expenditure is identified and itemised, including the name and official registration number of each donor, discounts from the media, the amount of each donation and expenditures, and a general financial report. The Electoral Commission then forwards this to the Digital Information Documentation Office which in turn standardises the data for the database.
In Belgium, an impartial College of Experts evaluates electronic voting technologies
In Belgium, the College of Experts is appointed by the Chambers of Parliament and is empowered to evaluate the country’s electronic voting technologies. The College begins reviewing the automated voting systems 40 days before elections. Members are entitled to request any information from technology vendors, including source codes and copies of software. They also may visit polling stations, copy software in use on election day and conduct other activities. The College must report its findings to Parliament and the Ministry of Interior within 15 days following elections, and reports are generally published thereafter.
In addition, each political party that has at least two Members of Parliament may designate an IT expert to receive the source codes of the e-voting systems and examine them, while they must keep the source codes confidential.
In Costa Rica, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal publishes statistics on voter registration
The Costa Rican Supreme Electoral Tribunal (Tribunal Supremo de Elecciones) regularly publishes on its website www.tse.go.cr statistics on the composition of the voter registry. These statistics encompass provincial, county and constituency levels and include, for example, number of women registered and the change in the total number of registered voters from previous months.
In the UK, the Electoral Commission produces a report after every election
In the UK, the Electoral Commission is statutorily required to produce a report after every election, including problems and possible instances of malfeasance, as well as recommendations for improvement. After the 2010 general election it issued a special report on the problems experienced at the polls that year along with data about how many people had problems, what types, and where they occurred.
Kenya adopted reforms to allow independent monitoring of electoral processes
Following the 2007-2008 electoral tragedy in Kenya that left over 1,000 people dead and 600,000 displaced in a conflict over presidential election results that were neither sufficiently transparent nor effectively administered, a new constitution was adopted in Kenya along with electoral and judicial reforms. The reforms led to enhanced transparency provisions allowing parties, citizen observers, media and international observers to monitor electoral processes.
The reforms also led to an open and inclusive process for appointing members of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). Appointments of the chairperson and eight members of the IEBC are done through a multi-staged process that involves the President, a Selection Panel and the National Assembly. The Selection Panel is responsible for advertising the positions, public interviews and shortlisting of candidates, who are in turn approved by the National Assembly and appointed by the President. The procedure for the appointment process is regulated by the Constitution of Kenya and the IEBC Act.
The IEBC receives its budget independently from the legislature and is constitutionally mandated as an independent body with specific review by the courts. Though Kenya has yet to pass a freedom of information law, the Article 35(1) of Constitution of Kenya guarantees every citizen the right to access to information held by the state, and state-established institutions, such as the IEBC.
Kenya’s Ombudsman monitored misuse of public resources in the 2013 elections
For the Kenyan elections in 2013, which were the first general elections under Kenya’s new constitution, Kenya’s Commission on Administrative Justice (the office of the Ombudsman) undertook election monitoring, checked against abuse of power, improper conduct and misbehaviour in public office, observed the election and conducted post election monitoring. The office of the ombudsman then issued a report on its actions, including recommendations: Championing Values in Hard Times: Election Monitoring and Observation Report No. 4/2013
Mexico has a comprehensive electoral code
The Instiuto Federal Electoral (or Federal Electoral Institute (IFE)) is a special electoral prosecutor and a special electoral court to resolve disputes concerning federal elections in Mexico.
The Federal Transparency and Access to Public Government Information law applies to the IFE, which adds greater possibilities for transparency in federal elections, and the Constitution provides IFE with autonomy, which among other things allows it to negotiate its budget directly with the legislature.
The main directive body of the IFE is the General Council, consisting of nine members with a right to vote and to participate in debates, and additional members who have the right to participate in debates but who are not entitled to vote. The nine members of the General Council are elected through the vote of two thirds of the members in the Lower Chamber of the Congress, from among proposals put forward by the parliamentary groups of the same Chamber, after an open consultation.
As a requirement, the President Councillor and the Electoral Councillors must not have been registered as candidates for any elective post or have performed any directive position at a national or local level for a political party during the last four years prior to the designation.
New Zealand allows voters to register online and provides election results online
The Electoral Commission in New Zealand offers a range of voter services and election related information on its website www.elections.org.nz. For example, it offers voters to register online and check the accuracy of their registration. The website also contains election results by polling station and various enrolment statistics.
South Africa has an Independent Electoral Commission
South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission, established in 1993, is the permanent body created by the South African Constitution to manage free and fair elections at all levels of government. The Commission is selected through an inclusive process.
It provides a range of election related material on its website including electoral timetables, laws and regulations, and annual reports and strategic documents. It also makes available the results data (in a machine-readable format) for every election since 1994 and allows voters to check their registration and voting location.
Its Municipal Demarcation Board provides information related to drawing electoral boundaries and must report annually to the national and each state legislature on its activities.
South Africa’s electoral commission publishes a report each year and after major elections
South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission is required to provide an annual report to the National Assembly, including description of its activities and audited financial statements, and a report following major elections. It is also required to issue publicly reports on its readiness before elections.
South Africa’s Independent Election Commission maintains committees to liaise with political parties
South Africa’s Independent Election Commission maintains Party Liaison Committees at the national, provincial and municipal levels for regular consultation and cooperation on electoral matters. These committees are enshrined in the electoral law (Regulations on Party Liaison Committees, 1998) and members at the various levels can access agendas, meeting minutes and other materials on the Election Commission’s website. In addition, with regard to public consultations, article 59 of the South African Constitution states that the National Assembly must facilitate public involvement in the legislative and other processes of the Assembly and its committees.
The Australian Election Commission tenders all contracts over $10,000 through and open online system
The Australian Election Commission places all open tender opportunities of $10,000 or more on the Australian government’s electronic tender system (AusTender). AusTender provides centralised publication of Australian Government business opportunities, annual procurement plans, multi-use lists and contracts awarded. On July 1 of every year, the Election Commission publishes an annual procurement plan with information on proposed procurement activities for the year ahead.
The Philippines Commission on Elections maintains rules on conflict of interest
The Philippines Commission on Elections (COMELEC) maintains explicit requirements against conflicts of interest, acceptance of gifts from suppliers, disclosure and related matters affecting the impartiality of its officials. Resolution No. 9307 ‘Code of conduct governing procurement activities of the Commission on Elections’ includes provisions against conflict of interest, and Resolution No. 7789 provide a detailed ‘Code of conduct and ethical standards for COMELEC officers and employees’.
The Philippines Commission on Elections publishes invitations to bid on procurement projects
The Philippines Commission on Elections (COMELEC) provides invitations to bid on procurement projects on its website www.comelec.gov.ph. It also provides periodic bulletins and resolutions of its Bids and Awards Committee concerning suppliers deemed eligible to bid on the project, their bid amounts and the status of the matter. COMELEC’s code of conduct governing procurement activities is stated in Resolution No. 9307 from 2011, which provides detailed guidance, including grievance procedures and penalties.
The Philippines used an Advisory Council to enable a electronic vote counting to be introduced with confidence
Prior to the Philippines’ nationwide transition to electronic counting for the 2010 elections, the national legislature mandated the created of the Commission on Elections Advisory Council, which consisted of nine members from government, academia, the IT community, and civil society.
The Advisor Council participated during all stages of the transition to the new technologies and provided oversight and recommendations to the Philippine’s Commission on Elections (COMELEC). In particular, the Council recommended the most appropriate, secure and cost-effective technology; observed and participated as non-voting members of the Special Bids and Awards Committee; participated as non-voting members of the steering committee that implemented the new system; planned and tested the technology; and conducted an evaluation of the new system after the election.
The Advisory Council has been cited as an important factor in building public trust and confidence during the transition.
The U.S. Federal Election Commission allows users of its website to view candidate finances
The U.S. Federal Election Commission’s website www.fec.gov contains a Campaign Finance Disclosure Portal which provides information on campaign finance for individual political candidates searchable by donor name, business name, locality of origin etc.
The UK Electoral Commission and Parliamentary Ombudsman provide complaints mechanisms
In the United Kingdom, citizens can file complaints either by mail or email with the Secretary to the Commission Board of the Electoral Commission. If the person is not satisfied with the outcome of the complaints process, she or he may appeal to the Parliamentary Ombudsman through the office of his or her Member of Parliament (or the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman for complaints relating to Scottish local government elections).
- Establish measures to safeguard administrative impartiality and provide training and access to information about them
- Make election related data available proactively
- Require consultation for any significant changes to electoral processes
- Establish open contracting rules for election related procurements