Pippa Norris is a lecturer in comparative politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, a professor of government and international relations at the University of Sydney, and director of the Electoral Integrity Project. Her research looks at the relationship between elections and public opinion, political communications, and gender politics. She spoke with World Policy Journal about the Electoral Integrity Project, a six-year research study from which Norris developed the Perceptions of Electoral Integrity dataset, as well as electoral practices around the world and their role in democracy.
WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: What, in your opinion, is the best way to evaluate the integrity of an election?
PIPPA NORRIS: We can think of integrity in terms of electoral fraud, which is usually thought to occur on election days. But we think it’s much broader. The international community has developed an idea of the electoral cycle, which starts at the end of an election when the announcement of results is made, right through the early stages in preparing for the next election: registering parties, candidates, voters; the issues of the campaign and things like money and media; and the actual election and the aftermath. Challenges to integrity can arise at any of these stages; something can go wrong in the early stage, such as gerrymandering—misbalancing campaign funding—or in the form of malpractices on election day. It’s a complex phenomenon, but it’s basically a range of issues that undermine international human rights and violate standards set through international conventions.
WPJ: To what extent is this method of evaluation applicable to electoral systems around the world?
PN: We use this method worldwide. Our last data set, which came out in mid-2016, had 153 different countries and over 200 elections. The next data set, known as the Perceptions of Electoral Integrity (PEI) index, comes out in early May. One month after each national election, presidential or parliamentary, we ask experts about how they see the quality of that election, using 50 different questions throughout each different stage of the election cycle. The questions ask standard things such as, “Do you agree or disagree? Electoral officials were fair, the process of the media coverage was comprehensive, the elections were timely and the results were announced in a timely fashion.” We basically pull this together and this allows us to look at how experts evaluate elections, just like other experts evaluate things like patterns of corruption, and then we produce an index summarizing all these items. We also publish how the election worked in each stage of the electoral cycle, as well as all the individual items. This allows us to compare elections all around the world from Albania to Zimbabwe, and to use our method within countries where we have experts based in states or provinces. We did this, for example, in elections in Russia, India, and the United States.
We’ve done this in the United States in 2012, 2014, and 2016. We also did a comparison across states in 2014 and 2016. We want to be able to analyze each state of each country. What are the core problems? Which are the areas that rate well? Which are the weaker areas? According to the country experts and the country itself, what are the ways that we can approach different types of reforms? Then we do other types of research to look into elections. For example, we have a new book out on campaign funding and what can be done to create a more level playing field. We have other studies that essentially look at why elections fail in countries around the world.
WPJ: How do you ensure the impartiality of opinions when surveying experts?
PN: Something else that we do in the World Value Survey is ask the general public a similar range of identical questions as the experts—nine questions in this case, not 50. Then we can compare whether the opinions of the experts are similar to the opinions of the public, or whether they diverge. They can diverge for lots of reasons, but that’s one aspect we check.
We also look at other studies, such as the evaluation of democracy done by Freedom House, and study whether they correlate with the results of the Perceptions of Electoral Integrity index. We also look at things like the Varieties of Democracy Project based in Sweden, which again does a global comparison of how different countries see issues of elections and democracy. Where there is a strong correlation between our study and others, there is reason to believe that there is external validity and it’s not simply the opinion of our particular experts, but rather that there is actually a good pattern upon which most experts would agree about the quality of the institutions in those countries.
In addition, we look at internal validity—do experts vary according to factors like age, education, and whether they live in the country or outside of it? We look at a variety of factors about the experts themselves because we have over 2,000 experts in the survey, and we want to see whether certain characteristics could produce a different kind of evaluation on the PEI index.
WPJ: Based on your findings, what are the most common obstacles to establishing or maintaining integrity, and what can be done to overcome them?
PN: There are two core weaknesses. The basic one is campaign funding. The problem of money in politics is worldwide. On the one hand, we need to have money to fund policies and campaigns and information. On the other hand, in many countries there are real problems there.
And then there’s the media. The media in a campaign is really critical. Think about the role of fake news in the United States, for example. But there are also problems of state control or lack of freedom of information. We find that all of these things are major weaknesses in many elections.
We’ve found that electoral integrity is strong in the final stages. We now know how to run elections as a technical exercise through electoral management bodies, so the integrity of this stage comes out to be slightly stronger than the campaign period.
WPJ: Are there cases where full or established democracies are not the election systems with the most integrity?
PN: We’ve found that elections have spread worldwide; there are only five countries around the world that do not have any sort of elections or national parliaments or presidents. But there is a variety of different contexts in which elections are occurring. Think about running an election in Democratic Republic of Congo or Afghanistan. These places have highly illiterate populations, conflict, poor communication and transportation issues, very little experience of any elections or democracy, and a very poor and weak state, which isn’t able to administer an election in basic ways.
There are many countries which are very poor, and this includes countries in Africa like Burundi and Ethiopia; countries in Asia Pacific like Vietnam and Cambodia; countries in Central Asia like Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, or Afghanistan; countries like Syria in the Middle East; or Haiti and Dominican Republic in Latin America. There’s a wide range of the quality of elections in these places. Sometimes this is due to failures of the conditions in which they’re trying to run elections. Sometimes it’s due to the political institutions and a very strong executive that has produced instability. Or sometimes it’s due to the weakness of the electoral management body that actually runs the elections. We compare across the world. But today, elections can work well even in poor states. We find for example that Benin and Cape Verde in Africa have pretty good elections. Similarly, if we look around the world, we find countries like Estonia and Costa Rica have very good elections in our electoral integrity index.
To give an example of where the United States fits into this, we have 153 countries and the U.S., unfortunately, doesn’t rate very well. Even affluent countries with a many years of experience with democracy can still do fairly badly in the overall comparison. The U.S. is worst of all the established democracies.
WPJ: What specifically makes the U.S. rate at the bottom of the established democracies?
PN: If you look for example at Economist Intelligence Unit evaluations of democracy, the U.S. just slipped and is now rated about 20th worldwide. Even though a longstanding democracy, it doesn’t compare with places like Sweden, Norway, Germany, and many other European countries in terms of the quality of its democracy or the quality of its elections.
In terms of U.S. elections, in particular, the problem is twofold. First, elections are very decentralized. Most countries have a common electoral management body, like Canada, which centralizes and standardizes the process and the procedures used in all the provinces, states, and local areas. In the U.S., we leave a lot of these decisions to local areas and state governments. That’s a core problem, because you get uneven standards and there are differences from one state to another on simple things like the hours of opening, how people can register, or who is allowed to vote.
Secondly, our process in America is very partisan. It’s very much left up to state houses and the legislature of the governor. Courts issue an independent check on what’s being done. But that again also means you have many issues—gerrymandering in particular, which draws constituencies to favor incumbents and particular parties. This is a major weakness in the American system. In other countries, elections are controlled more by national bodies and by impartial groups such as the judiciary, rather than by politicians.
WPJ: How does election reform affect the representation of women in government?
PN: There’s a strong association between the type of electoral system adopted and the representation of women. Proportional representation electoral systems tend to have twice as many women in parliament than those that use first-past-the-post or single member plurality systems like in the United Kingdom’s Upper Westminster or in the U.S. Congress. In addition, quotas have become very common. Over 100 countries have adopted gender quotas, designed to bring more women into parliaments. Many of these have been implemented through proportional representation systems, but some have also been implemented through majoritarian systems. Where there’s effective affirmative action, implemented through the use of penalties for noncompliance, increasing the number of women in elected office has been very effective.
Those two tactics are some of the most effective reforms, along with thinking about things like campaign funding, capacity building, and how parliaments work. Bringing women in only to fail is not effective; you don’t want to just increase the number of women, but you also want to expand their empowerment. Looking at basic things like how people became chairs of committees in parliaments and how they rise up from the ranks of backbenches helps. Those are important ways to enhance the voices of women, particularly in countries where women’s rights are very much on the line and where increasing their empowerment can then increase their representation on many social issues, economic issues, and so on.
WPJ: Which countries score best on representation of women?
PN: In terms of the numbers of women in parliament, the simple way to check this is to go to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Every year, they provide an assessment of women in parliament as a proportion in the lower and upper house. And you can see the rankings. Normally most of the Scandinavian countries score very high—it’s been this way for many decades. But there are also some developing countries that have moved quite high up in their ranking as well. Rwanda is a leader in this, as the country has produced a very effective form of quotas to increase the number of women in parliament. Overall, IPU says 23 percent of both houses are now comprised of women, so that’s an improvement, although a very slow one. The second highest worldwide right now is Bolivia, with women constituting 53 percent of parliament. Then we have Cuba with 49 percent, Nicaragua with 46 percent, and Senegal and Mexico with 43 percent.
WPJ: Are there are worldwide trends you notice regarding which countries and regions are performing the best on electoral integrity?
PN: As you might expect, it follows the patterns of democratization. Scandinavia and Western Europe in general have very good quality elections according to our index. But even so, there are variations. For example, in Western Europe, the Netherlands scored 79 out of 100 in the overall PEI index. By contrast, the U.K. is only scoring 65. Similarly, you can find incredible variations across the Americas. In Latin America, Uruguay, Brazil, and Chile are doing well. Obviously, Canada has a high rating in North America. Down at the bottom however, are very poor countries like Haiti, Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Venezuela. In each region of the world, you find some positive examples and others that are problematic.
In terms of trends, we find that most of the established democracies have remained fairly stable. They may improve or go down a bit each election, but they roughly remain within the same position. The countries with the worst records are those that are consistently poor, because of either political repression or a government that is willing to manipulate elections to benefit the ruling party and is not interested in fair elections. Those with middle rankings have a lot of variations that often change—we term these hybrid regimes because they’re not completely democratic and they’re not completely autocratic. In these cases, the international community could really do a lot to try and strengthen elections because there are willing partners or professional election officials who want better election laws, more regulation of campaign money and the misuse of this money, and improvements in things like voter registration and the ways in which the process can be made more inclusive. These are places like Ghana in Africa, the Maldives in Asia Pacific, and Albania and Bulgaria in Eastern Europe. These are the countries that are really moving in a more positive direction.
WPJ: Why does election integrity matter, and what are the potential consequences of failing to address the issue?
PN: Getting elections right is important because they are part of democracy and because, if they don’t go right, many other things can become unstable. Since the late 80s and early 90s, the international community has really been concerned about improving elections, as have many governments. This has provided many more opportunities. All of the international community, meaning agents of the United Nations, things like the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and non-profit agencies have worked on elections. Why do they care? Well, quite simply, elections are the cornerstone of any form of representative democracy. If you don’t have an election that works, then everything else often fails: parliaments, executive bodies, courts, participation in civil society, and free media.
Secondly, elections matter not just themselves, but also because of the consequences for the public, citizenship, and civic engagement if they did not exist. When elections are failing or flawed, you find a decline in turnout, as people are no longer willing to go to the polls. There can be many more peaceful protests and demonstrations. Sometimes there’s a stalemate at the end of the election where both sides are vying for control. In the worst instances, there is real violence and ethnic tensions break out, as we’ve seen in a number places recently such as Gambia and Gabon. The regime can fail or there can be a military coup, like in Thailand, which was moving in a more democratic direction, until, in the last election, the military stood in. No more elections have been called since then.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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[Interview conducted by Connie E]
[Photo courtesy of Pippa Norris]