Chapter 7


Election Observation


Why observe elections?


Election observation is a valuable tool for improving the quality of elections. Observers help build public confidence in the honesty of electoral processes. Observation can help promote and protect the civil and political rights of participants in elections. It can lead to the correction of errors or weak practices, even while an election process is still under way. It can deter manipulation and fraud, or expose such problems if they do occur. When observers can issue positive reports, it builds trust in the democratic process and enhances the legitimacy of the governments that emerge from elections. Election observation by domestic groups encourages civic involvement in the political process. Following elections, reports and recommendations by observer groups can lead to changes and improvements in national law and practice.


Observation takes on heightened importance in post-conflict countries, in which groups that have been contesting on the battlefield may harbour strong suspicions of the political system and the election process. In such cases, observation makes an important contribution to peace-building, since creating confidence in elections can help promote national reconciliation and sound democratic practices. Election observation by the United Nations or other intergovernmental organizations can be especially helpful when domestic observer organizations do not have sufficient strength or resources to organize effective monitoring efforts, or when the impartiality of domestic observers is in question, as may often be the case in post-conflict countries or new democracies. However, international observers are typically less knowledgeable about the country they are observing, and a few may bring their own biases to the observation. In extraordinary circumstances international observers or supervisors in post-conflict countries may even be given the authority to certify or invalidate election results. Generally, however, observers have no power to interfere in the election process, but may only observe, assess and report.


Carefully designed and conducted election observation can improve the implementation of the human rights of women and help to enhance their participation in electoral processes. Comprehensive observation should include an assessment of how all elements of an election process affect women as well as men. Targeted observation efforts can focus specifically on aspects of women’s participation in elections. Since women should have the opportunity to participate equally as observers, observation itself can serve to bring more women into the political process.


When to observe?


Any election can be enhanced by observation, but comprehensive observation is particularly helpful in countries in which a significant proportion of the population may lack trust in the electoral system. Post-conflict countries are among the best examples of this, but the same may be true of countries holding their first democratic elections, new democracies that have held very few elections, countries with weak human rights records, or countries with extremely strong executive powers and long-time rulers. It is a good practice for all countries to welcome international and domestic observers.


There are many practical issues to consider before deciding whether and how to observe an election:


·         Does the election law make provision for observers? Will they be allowed into polling stations and counting centres? 

·         Do observers have clear rights under the law to receive copies of official documents and election result protocols, and to collect other information?

·         Will the election management body or another authority provide accreditation?

·         Are sufficient personnel available for the observation? Do they have the necessary expertise, or can they be trained in time?

·         Is enough funding available to complete the observation?

·         Is the security situation sufficiently stable to ensure the safety of observers?


If the answer to one or more of these questions is no, then a credible observation may not be possible.


For international organizations contemplating observing an election, another important consideration is the attitude of the host Government and other local actors. If the host Government does not issue an invitation, an observation mission may be impractical. If key local groups such as the major political parties (including opposition parties) and non-governmental organizations do not see any value added in international observation, then organizing a mission may not be worthwhile. It is good practice for international organizations to organize a preliminary visit, or needs assessment mission, before deciding whether and how to observe an election.


In planning for election observation, it is important to remember that elections are a process, not a one-day event. Comprehensive observation therefore requires a careful look at the entire pre-election period and post-election developments, as well as what happens on election day. However, election observation does not have to be comprehensive; it can also be designed to focus on a specific region, or on a particular aspect of an election. For example, an observation can be planned entirely around the question of women’s participation and how the various elements of the process affect women. Alternatively, it might focus on minority groups or displaced persons, or on particular thematic aspects of an election such as voter registration, media coverage or the accuracy of the vote tabulation.


Composition and functions of an observation mission


Once a decision has been taken to observe an election and clear objectives for the mission have been set, appropriate personnel must be recruited to ensure mission goals are met. For comprehensive observation, this means assembling a team that includes experts in election administration, law, political affairs, human rights including women’s rights, media, statistics and logistics. In post-conflict countries, it may be necessary for the observation mission to have one or more security experts. Additional experts might be needed to deal with specific issues or problems such as minority groups, dispute resolution or electronic voting.


It is good practice for observation missions to include a gender expert who can focus exclusively on how election procedures will affect women’s participation. In general, however, gender issues should be mainstreamed into the work of the observation mission; all members of the mission should participate in assessing how elections affect both men and women. Observer groups, and particularly national groups, should include equal numbers of women and men. All observers should be gender-sensitive and should receive some basic training on how election procedures can affect men and women differently.


The composition of the core observer team may vary somewhat, depending on whether the observation is being organized by an international organization, a non-partisan domestic group, or a political party. Observation by any of these types of groups can be helpful in building confidence. However, observers from the United Nations or other international organizations will often be perceived as more impartial than domestic groups. Political party observers will be perceived as the least impartial and objective observers. International observation groups usually keep themselves separate from domestic groups in order to preserve their image of impartiality, since the credibility of their assessment and conclusions will depend to a large extent on whether they are perceived as neutral and impartial. At the same time, however, there are advantages to a certain level of cooperation between international and domestic observer groups, and the very presence of international observers can, in itself, be seen as supportive of the domestic observation process.


Ideally, an observation mission should start its work months before election day, reviewing the legal framework, monitoring voter registration and candidate registration, evaluating the work of election management bodies, assessing the political campaign, and following media coverage of the election. It should observe developments around the country, not just in the capital city.


On election day, the long-term observation team should be supplemented by a large number of short-term observers whose task is to follow up on developments at polling stations and monitor the vote count. In the best cases, observation missions will be able to arrange full-time coverage of every polling station. Domestic observer groups are usually better able than international observers to organize such large missions. When it is not possible to cover all or most of the polling stations, a representative sample should be observed, including urban and rural polling stations in all parts of the country; the larger the sample, the more accurate the results, provided the sample is truly representative. Observation of several hundred representative polling stations can produce an excellent statistical sample. Polling station observers should be trained on what to look for and asked to fill out standard forms or checklists that can be used to assess national trends. Some domestic observer groups have had success organizing parallel vote tabulations, sometimes called “quick counts”, on election night. This is a process through which observers report actual polling station results to a central point, where they are tabulated; the process, if properly organized, can provide a valuable means of checking whether officially announced results accurately reflect what happened at the polling stations.


At the end of the observation process, an observer group should issue a report conveying its findings and assessments of the election process. It is particularly important to assess whether an election was held in accordance with domestic law and with international standards for democratic elections. Observation reports should highlight any weaknesses in the election process and should provide recommendations for improvement.


Gender and election observation


An election is not in compliance with international obligations and standards unless it includes the opportunity for full and equal participation by women as well as men. Since gender issues tie in with all aspects of an election, they should be an integral part of the observation methodology. Observers should therefore evaluate how various aspects of elections affect men and women in different ways (see box 7.1). Some of the aspects of an election that observers should assess for their impact on women’s participation include the following:


·         The legal framework and whether it includes clear provisions on the equal civil and political rights of women; and whether any aspects of the election law, political party law or other election-related legislation and regulations indirectly disadvantage women;


·         The election system, recalling that proportional systems are more likely than majority systems to result in the election of women, and that closed candidate lists tend to result in the election of more women;


·         The effectiveness and enforcement of any formal or informal quotas or other temporary special measures aimed at accelerating the de facto equality between men and women, if such measures exist, or whether it might be appropriate to institute such measures if they do not exist;


·         The election administration, taking into account whether women serve on election management bodies in equal numbers as men; whether decisions on election operations—including voter registration, ballot design, voter education and polling procedures—have been taken with the needs of women in mind; and whether the election management body has adopted a clear policy on gender; and also taking into account polling procedures and voter turnout on election day;


·         Political parties and the extent to which they have included women equally in their operations, decision-making bodies, and candidate lists;


·         The media and whether they convey a positive image of women as voters, candidates and political leaders.


All members of an election observation mission should be sensitive to these issues, and should pursue information on women’s participation as part of their normal duties. Every meeting with a government official, election administrator, political party representative or other person connected with the election process provides an opportunity to collect information on women’s participation. Collecting statistical data can be particularly helpful in analysing women’s participation and assessing whether trends are moving in a positive direction.


Box 7.1.  Basic questions on women’s participation for an election observation mission


The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, a major election monitoring office, has developed a detailed methodology for monitoring women’s participation in elections as a part of more comprehensive election observation. Its election observation missions are expected to assess a range of issues affecting women’s participation. Essentially, however, all of its observation missions are asked to consider the following questions:


·         Do women have an equal opportunity to take part in the political process?  If not, what barriers stand in their way? In particular, are there any legal obstacles to women’s equal participation as voters, candidates, or elected leaders?


·         If opportunities are equal, are women taking advantage of them, and if not, why not? For example, are rates of illiteracy, unemployment or poverty higher among women? Are there other political or societal barriers to women’s participation?


·         Are there any particular regional, minority, ethnic or religious groups among which women’s participation is appreciably lower than among the general population?


·         Could any changes be made to law or practice that would result in greater or more equal participation by women?  If so, what are they?


     Source: OSCE/ODIHR, Handbook for Monitoring Women’s Participation in Elections (Warsaw, 2004).


On election day, polling station observers can assess the numbers and proportions of women working as election officials and heading polling station boards. Observers may be able to collect data on the numbers of men and women who have voted, or at least to form an impression of whether men and women are voting in the same numbers. Observers should be watchful for instances of family voting, which can deprive women of their right to cast a secret and independent ballot and which may constitute fraud if carried out deliberately and on a wide scale. Observers can also make a general assessment of whether any polling procedures are disadvantageous to women.




Election observation missions can make valuable contributions to enhancing public confidence in elections, especially in post-conflict countries in which levels of trust in the electoral process may be low. Observation can also help in the assessment and advancement of women’s participation in electoral processes. Strategies different actors can adopt to maximize their effectiveness are listed below.


Election observation missions should:


·         Ensure gender balance in their composition;

·         Address gender issues and evaluate elections from a gender perspective;

·         Receive training on gender issues and on the electoral rights of women; for international observation missions, such training should be received before arriving in a country;

·         Draw attention to critical points of the election process at which women may be disadvantaged, including through major electoral fraud in which men vote multiple times, allegedly on behalf of their families;

·         When providing an overall assessment of an election, give full weight to the extent to which the women have been able to exercise their rights;

·         Collect sex-disaggregated data on the election process;

·         Make recommendations on electoral improvements that would lead to greater political participation by women.


Government actors should:


·         Invite international and domestic observer groups to monitor their elections;

·         Facilitate the work of observers by providing accreditation and information;

·         Encourage observer groups to focus on women’s participation in elections.


International actors should:


·         Support observation missions set up specifically to look at women’s participation in elections;

·         Encourage all Governments to invite international election observation missions and to welcome observation by non-partisan domestic observer groups;

·         Be prepared to view significant transgressions of the electoral rights of women as sufficient in themselves to render an election not free and fair;   

·         Continue to support the process of transition, democratization, and equality after the election is over.


Civil society actors should:


·         Organize briefings by women’s organizations and prominent women leaders for election observation missions, both international and domestic;

·         Actively seek credentials as non-partisan election observers;

Review election monitoring reports and advocate for reform.