By Pippa Norris (Harvard and Sydney Universities)
Keywords: authoritarian regimes, autocracy, democracy, elections, fraud, party competition, politics, integrity
Originally published in EIP Blogger on 8th March 2016
At a time of growing gloom about prospects for democratization around the world, many still hope that elections will provide opportunities for gains. Contests in countries such as Myanmar, Nigeria and Benin provide hope, in different ways, for progress.
The good news is that direct elections are used today as the pathway to elected office in the lower house of parliament in 95% of all sovereign nation-states around the world (185 out of 193 states). During the late twentieth-century, popular contests have also proliferated for presidential, provincial, municipal and local office. This potentially strengthens the voice of the people and the accountability of their leaders.
But the bad news is that major challenges remain to strengthen electoral legitimacy and the quality of free and fair contests in all countries. Too often, multiple serious technical flaws and violations of political rights are reported. Laws ban opposition parties. Rival leaders are imprisoned. Voting rights are suppressed. Electoral registers are inaccurate. Ruling parties dominate the airwaves. Free speech is muzzled. Thugs threaten voters. Campaigns are awash with money. Ballot-stuffing fakes the count. Electoral officials favor the government. Dispute resolution mechanisms are broken. Rigged elections can reinforce the legitimacy of corrupt and repressive leaders, solidifying their hold on power.
Electoral malpractices also matter by deepening public mistrust of electoral authorities, political parties and parliaments, which, in turn, affects citizen behavior by depressing voter turnout and catalyzing protest activism. Since elections are the heart of the representative process, flawed contests damage party competition, democratic governance, and fundamental human rights.
But how common are these types of problems? Where do they arise around the world?
New evidence to give insights into this issue has been gathered by the Electoral Integrity Project. The 2015 annual report compares the risks of flawed and failed elections, and how far countries around the world meet international standards. The report gather assessments from over 2000 experts to evaluate the integrity of all 180 national parliamentary and presidential contests held between 1 July 2012 to 31 December 2015 in 139 countries worldwide, including 54 national elections held last year.
To summarize the evidence, Figure 1 illustrates the contrasts in the overall 100-point PEI index for all the countries covered in the survey since 2012, divided by global region. The ranking and map offer a worldwide overview.
The comparisons highlight that Scandinavia and Western Europe are rated most highly in overall levels of electoral integrity, not surprisingly given the long history of democracy in the region. The rankings in PEI worldwide are led by Scandinavian states -- Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden –which also do well in most standard indices of the quality of democratic governance. At the same time, however, contrasts are observed in PEI-4.0 scores even among similar European Union member states and post-industrial societies; Mediterranean Europe usually performs less well than Northern Europe. The UK also scores exceptionally poorly compared with other European societies, with a PEI Index around 20 points less than the top ranking Scandinavian states.
In the Americas, even wider disparities can be seen, contrasting the cases of Costa Rica, Uruguay and Canada, all well rated by experts, compared with the low ratings for Guatemala, Venezuela, Honduras and particularly Haiti. Overall the United States ranks 47 worldwide out of all 139 nations under comparison, based on the 2012 presidential and 2014 Congressional elections, even before the bitterly divided 2016 campaign, the lowest score for any long-established democracy.
In post-Communist Europe, the power-sharing democracies, smaller welfare states, and mid-level income economies in the Baltics and Central Europe often do well in the quality of their elections today, including Estonia, Lithuania, and Slovenia, all scoring higher in the PEI Index than long-established majoritarian democracies such as India, the US, and UK. At the same time, Central Eurasia remains the home of several unreconstructed authoritarian states, which hold multi-party elections to legitimate ruling parties but with limited human rights, exemplified by the poor PEI scores observed in Azerbaijan, Tajikistan and Belarus.
Asia-Pacific sees similar wide disparities, with the affluent post-industrial societies of Australia, South Korea, New Zealand and Japan heading the ratings, as well as Mongolia, which has made rapid progress in abandoning its Soviet past. Yet other countries in the region perform far worse in the PEI Index, notably Cambodia, Malaysia and Bangladesh.
In the Middle East, Israel and Tunisia are the states holding elections with the highest integrity, according to the experts, whilst Bahrain, Afghanistan and Syria rated as having poor elections.
Finally, Sub-Saharan Africa sees positive scores for electoral integrity in Benin, Mauritius, Lesotho and South Africa, while unfortunately more than half the states included in the survey have low scores for integrity, with Burundi, Equatorial Guinea, and Ethiopia rated at the bottom of the sub-continent – and some of the lowest ratings around the globe.
What explains the ratings?
Research suggests that there is no single factor that can explain why countries perform well or badly when it comes to electoral integrity. Instead the drivers lie in a combination of three types of conditions:
Structural constraints; electoral integrity is more challenging in societies with widespread poverty and illiteracy (such as Afghanistan), a legacy of deep-rooted conflict (like Burundi), battling the ‘curse’ of natural resources and state capture (like Equatorial Guinea), and the confronted with a historical legacy inherited from previous regimes and elections within each country;
International linkage; the quality of elections is also shaped by how far societies are open to the spread of international norms and standards through cosmopolitan communications and membership of regional organizations (such as within the OAS and OSCE), the positive or negative impact of neighboring regional powers, such as South Africa and Russia, and through the provision of international development aid and technical assistance; and,
Institutional arrangements; electoral integrity also rests upon the power-sharing design of constitutional arrangements, electoral systems, and procedures, providing transparent, fair, inclusive and legitimate rules, as well as the powers, capacity, and ethos of the electoral authorities when managing elections.
Rather than abandoning support for elections, the international community needs to double down on its investment. Roughly half a million US dollars of ODA are spent annually on providing electoral assistance. While many elections are indeed deeply flawed today, the international community needs to work more effectively if there is to be any hope of further progress in human rights and democracy.
 Independent nation-states without de jure direct elections for the lower or single house of the national parliament specified in the constitution include Saudi Arabia, Brunei Darussalam, UAE, Qatar, and China. In addition, South Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia lack de facto direct elections for parliament, due to transitional constitutions. Direct elections have also been temporarily suspended in Thailand.
 Pippa Norris. 2014. Why Electoral Integrity Matters. New York: Cambridge University Press.
 Thomas Edward Flores and Irfan Nooruddin. 2016. Elections in Hard Times: Building Stronger Democracies in the 21st Century. New York: Cambridge University Press.
 Pippa Norris. 2015. Why Elections Fail. NY: Cambridge University Press.