Chapter 6


Election Administration


Why focus on election administration and women’s participation?


Elections are usually administered and supervised by election management bodies, also commonly known as election commissions, which have broad powers to implement election laws, issue regulations, adjudicate complaints, and oversee the process of campaigning, voting and counting. The honest and impartial operation of these bodies is crucial to successful election administration and to building and maintaining public confidence in the election process. The challenges facing these bodies can be enormous, especially in post-conflict countries, where the procedures may be new, the political stakes may be extremely high, and the commitment to democracy among former combatants may be weak.


The decisions and policies implemented by election management bodies can have a significant impact on women’s participation in elections. Even decisions that may seem gender-neutral, such as polling hours, the locations of polling stations, and the design of the ballots, can have a substantial influence on women’s participation. Therefore, election bodies need to adopt a gender perspective to ensure their decisions work to maximize the participation of all electors. Election bodies at all levels should include women as part of their membership and leadership, particularly in post-conflict countries (see box 6.1).





Types of election administration


Election management bodies are organized in a number of different ways. In many countries they have a tiered operational structure, with a national election management body (or central election commission) at the top, regional or district bodies reporting to it, and a polling station management body at each polling station. There may be more or fewer levels depending on the size of the country. The specific powers accorded to the election administrators at each level vary depending on the provisions of a country’s election laws. Usually, the national election body will be authorized to issue binding instructions to lower-level bodies; when this is not the case, it may lead to disjointed or inconsistent application of election procedures, which can diminish confidence in the process.


Box 6.1  Report of the Secretary-General on women’s equal participation in conflict prevention, management and conflict resolution in post-conflict peace-building


In a December 2003 report to the United Nations Economic and Social Council (E/CN.6/2004/10), the Secretary-General highlighted the important role of national election commissions in promoting women’s participation in elections in post-conflict countries:


“42. All those negotiating peace agreements, and in particular the mediator and the parties to the conflict, need to ensure that peace agreements contain provisions for the conduct of elections and, without establishing a rigid time frame, call for priority action and compliance with the following:


“(b) Establishment, by the transitional government, of an independent and neutral national electoral commission that includes an equal number of women and men and whose membership and mandate is the result of consultations with civil society groups, including women’s organizations;


“(c) Organization, by the national electoral commission, of voter education and registration programmes that are readily available and accessible, as well as appropriate, to all women voters, and where necessary provided for women alone; provision of security by international and/or national security/police forces to ensure women’s attendance in such programmes”.


Election management bodies can be constituted on the basis of several different models. In some countries, they are made up of civil servants, judges or other experts on elections; this “neutral” or “professional” model is the one most often used when the United Nations or other international organizations are involved in setting up an election management body. A body of this nature is ideal in many ways, as it can bring a high level of experience, professionalism, impartiality and skill to the administration of an election. However, in countries in which levels of trust and confidence in the public service are low, or in which the judiciary is not sufficiently independent, this model can detract from public confidence in an election. In other countries, election management bodies may be made up of prominent individuals or experts appointed by the legislative or executive branch of government. Again, this model works well to the extent that voters and political parties have confidence in the independence and integrity of those appointed. Election management bodies may also comprise or include representatives of political parties. This model has the potential disadvantage of politicizing the administration of elections, but it can be useful in building confidence in countries (such as those emerging from conflict) in which there are doubts about the honesty and integrity of the election system. However, since political parties can usually appoint only a single member to a national election body, the result may be that fewer women have the opportunity to serve in this capacity.    


National election management bodies tend to operate most effectively when they are permanent and have members appointed for a term of several years. In contrast, most polling station boards are constituted only a few weeks or months before an election. To build confidence, election management bodies at all levels should operate independently, impartially and transparently. Meetings may be open to the public, and decisions on controversial issues should be taken only after careful consideration of all relevant issues. Election management bodies should always try to operate in a spirit of consensus. Since decisions on election issues are often of extreme political sensitivity, those taken by vote rather than by consensus can undermine the election management bodies’ appearance of neutrality and professionalism.


It is a best practice for election management bodies at all levels to include women as full participants. This not only guarantees gender balance, but can also help ensure that these bodies take women’s perspectives into account as they decide how specific elements of the election will be administered, particularly if all election administrators are provided with gender training. When necessary, special training can be made available for women to ensure that they are qualified to assume positions as election administrators. Management bodies should adopt a clear policy on advancing women’s electoral participation. They should appoint a focal point or committee to consider how pending decisions will affect women as well as men. Experienced international actors can provide useful advice to electoral management bodies on ways to ensure their decisions work to increase women’s participation (see box 6.2).


Box 6.2East Timor: the inclusion of women in election management bodies


For the 2001 Constituent Assembly elections in East Timor, the United Nations Transitional Administration adopted special measures to integrate East Timorese women—through active recruitment— into the Independent Electoral Commission. The following quotas were established: 2 electoral commissioners, 5 headquarters staff, 26 staff officers at the district level, 65 subdistrict officers, and 500 polling station officials.


     Source: Milena Pires, “Enhancing women’s participation in electoral processes in post-conflict countries: experiences from East Timor”, a paper prepared for the expert group meeting on “Enhancing women’s participation in electoral processes in post-conflict countries”, Glen Cove, New York, 19 to 22 January 2004 (EGM/ELEC/2004/EP.6).

     Note:  Although there were two women electoral commissioners, only one was a native of East Timor.


Election administration functions that can affect women’s participation


Decisions taken by election management bodies can have an important impact on women’s ability to participate in elections. Some examples are as follows:


·         Selecting election administrators. In many countries, the election management body or bodies at each level appoint the body(ies) at the next lower level, thereby determining how many women actually serve as election administrators.


·         Qualifying and training election administrators. The national election management body often sets the specific criteria and educational requirements for election workers, from senior administrators to polling station workers. If the criteria are set unnecessarily high, they may disproportionately disadvantage women.


·         Compiling voter lists. To the extent that election management bodies determine procedures for voter registration, they should keep in mind that women are more likely to be registered under State-initiated systems, in which the Government automatically registers all eligible citizens to vote, provided the State has the skills and resources to make such a system work effectively. In systems in which individual voters must register themselves, election management bodies should ensure that the need to register is well-publicized, that voter registration stations are easily accessible, and that procedures are quick and simple. Special attention should be devoted to registering displaced persons, most of whom are women.


·         Educating voters. Election management bodies are usually responsible for designing and administering voter education programmes. Well-thought-out, gender-sensitive programmes can increase women’s participation, while poorly designed programmes can result in lower rates of participation among women.


·         Certifying candidates. The submission of a list of signatures or the payment of a monetary deposit is usually required to become a candidate; if either of these requirements is too high, or if election management bodies are not impartial in applying the rules, potential women candidates may be placed at a disadvantage.


·         Setting up polling stations. Women voters may be at a greater disadvantage than men if election management bodies establish polling stations at inconvenient locations, if polling hours are too short, or if too few polling stations are opened and voters have to wait in long lines. In some countries, election management bodies may need to consider establishing separate polling stations for women in order to provide them with an opportunity to vote in an environment free of intimidation and pressure and thereby increase the likelihood of their participation.


·         Designing and printing ballots. Illiteracy usually affects more women than men. In countries with high rates of illiteracy, election management bodies should design ballots that include party emblems or photographs of candidates in order to facilitate voting. If there are minority languages in a country, it is good practice to print ballots and voter education material in all the languages commonly used.


·         Overseeing voting. Election bodies, especially at the polling-station level, must take care to ensure the secrecy of the ballot and to prevent family voting as a critical element in ensuring that women can cast confidential, independent ballots.


·         Ensuring a level playing field for all candidates. Creating equal conditions for all candidates is typically a key function of election management bodies. While this is usually seen in terms of equal treatment for contesting political parties, it applies equally to men and women candidates. High campaign spending limits work to the benefit of the richest candidates, who are usually men. Failure to prevent incumbents from unfairly using public resources for their campaigns can disadvantage women, since incumbents are most often men. Weak or vague media regulations may mean that women candidates do not get equal access to or treatment in the mass media.


·         Preventing intimidation. Intimidation during the election campaign and at the polls may be a problem, especially in post-conflict countries. In some circumstances women voters and candidates may be more likely than their male counterparts to experience intimidation. Providing adequate security at polling stations is one step election management bodies can take to address this issue. More generally, however, they should work to foster a peaceful campaign environment.


·         Counting ballots. Even the process of counting ballots may disadvantage women in certain circumstances. As a rule, ballots should be accepted as valid if the intent of the voter is clear. The adoption of overly strict rules for determining the validity of ballots—for example, requiring that a ballot with a check mark rather than a cross next to the chosen candidate be disqualified—can work against illiterate or poorly educated voters, including women.


·         Adjudicating complaints and appeals. Election management bodies should ensure that complaint and appeals procedures are clear and easy to use.


·         Planning for future elections. To the extent possible, election management bodies should collect sex-disaggregated data on all aspects of the electoral process, including voter registration and voter participation, in order to highlight any discrepancies or weaknesses that might require attention.




Given that many types of election procedures can directly or indirectly discriminate against women, election management bodies must be alert to the possible effects of all their decisions. As noted above, post-conflict countries have additional circumstances that must be taken into account. Some key recommendations for various actors involved in election administration are presented below.


Election management bodies should:


·         Seek gender balance in their membership at all levels and create incentives for women to become election administrators;

·         Develop a policy on gender aimed at enhancing women’s participation in the election process;

·         Train staff to be sensitive to gender issues;

·         Ensure the secrecy and independence of the vote;

·         Collect sex-disaggregated statistics on the election process in order to evaluate women’s participation and identify aspects of the process that can be improved.



Government actors should:


·         Establish electoral procedures that do not discriminate against women, and that are administered by neutral bodies sensitive to gender issues;

·         Ensure that all State agencies involved in elections—including, for example, police investigating electoral transgressions—are trained to respect the rights of women;

·         Provide sufficient resources to election management bodies to enable them to implement gender programmes.


International actors should:


·         Ensure that peacekeeping missions involved in post-conflict elections do the following: (a) give priority to enhancing women’s participation in election processes; (b) ensure gender balance in their electoral missions and deploy personnel with expertise in gender and elections, as well as personnel who are gender-sensitive; (c) provide sufficient up-front funding for elections, including for women’s participation in elections; (d) where possible, include capacity-building in electoral administration as part of the mandate of the mission, and ensure that women are given equal opportunities to benefit from such capacity-building;

·         Provide advice on best practices to enhance women’s participation in elections;

·         Provide post-election support to permanent election management bodies in order to contribute to the consolidation of their achievements in election administration.


Civil society actors should:


·         Advocate that election management bodies incorporate a gender perspective in their decisions;

·         Develop independent monitoring mechanisms to identify and report on gender bias in the electoral process;

·         Identify qualified women to serve on election management bodies.