Electoral integrity refers to international standards and global norms governing the appropriate conduct of elections.
These standards have been endorsed in a series of authoritative conventions, treaties, protocols, and guidelines by agencies of the international community, notably by the decisions of the UN General Assembly, by regional bodies such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Organization of American States (OAS), and the African Union (AU), and by member states in the United Nations. Following endorsement, these standards apply universally to all countries throughout the electoral cycle, including during the pre-electoral period, the campaign, on polling day, and in its aftermath.
The contrary notion of 'electoral malpractice' refers to contests violating international standards and global norms. Problems can arise at every stage of the process, from electoral and ballot access laws favoring incumbents to lack of a level playing field in money and media during campaigns to inaccurate voter registers, flawed counts and partial electoral management bodies.
There is nothing novel about problems of flawed or failed elections which suffer from fraud, corruption, or vote-rigging. Indeed, during the 18th and 19th Centuries, such practices were common in countries holding popular contests, including in rotten and pocket boroughs in Britain and machine politics in the United States. Concern about malpractices has grown in recent decades, however, along with the spread of elections to almost every state worldwide.
Contemporary campaigns attracting considerable international concern include allegations of irregularities occurring during the Russian presidential election, 2012, problems of violence during and after the Kenyan general election, 2007, and controversies in the Cambodian general election, 2013.
Origins in international law and human rights
The foundation of these standards rests on Article 21(3) in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). This specifies that "[t]he will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures."
These commitments were further developed in Article 25 of the UN International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR of 1966), namely the need for:
- periodic elections at regular intervals;
- universal suffrage that includes all sectors of society;
- equal suffrage, in the idea of one-person, one-vote;
- the right to stand for public office and contest elections;
- the rights of all eligible electors to vote;
- the use of a secret ballot process;
- genuine elections;
- elections that reflect the free expression of the will of the people.
The 1990 Copenhagen Document of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) made commitments that included free elections at regular intervals; the popular election of all seats in at least one chamber; universal and equal suffrage; the right to establish political parties and their clear separation from the state; campaigning in a free and fair atmosphere; unimpeded access to media; secret ballots, with counting and reporting conducted honestly and the results reported publicly; and the due winners being installed and allowed to serve their full terms.
The 2002 Venice Commission’s Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters spells out in detail what is meant by principles such as the universal, equal, free, secret, and direct suffrage.
Some of the most detailed standards are contained in the practical guidelines for electoral observers published by regional intergovernmental organizations, exemplified by the OSCE Election Observation Handbook. Similar principles have been adopted in the guidelines developed by the African Union, European Union, and Organization of American States.
The most recent statement of these norms in the UN General Assembly resolution 63/163 (April 12, 2012): “Strengthening the role of the United Nations in enhancing periodic and genuine elections and the promotion of democratization.” The language in this document reflects and extends a series of similar statements of principle endorsed regularly by the United Nations since 1991. Resolution 63/163 reaffirms that “democracy is a universal value based on the freely expressed will of the people to determine their own political, economic, social and cultural systems and their full participation in all aspects of their lives.” Thus, democratic principles are explicitly endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly, along with a commitment to “the importance of fair, periodic and genuine elections” as the primary mechanism that allows citizens “to express their will.”
This does not imply, however, that the United Nations or the international community endorse any specific institutional design or constitutional mechanisms that can best achieve global norms, leaving this as a matter for national sovereignty. The UN resolution recognizes the responsibility of member states, “for ensuring free and fair elections, free of intimidation, coercion and tampering of vote counts, and that all such acts are sanctioned accordingly.” The United Nations’ role (especially through the Electoral Assistance Division of the Department of Political Affairs and the United Nations Development Programme) is seen as one of providing electoral assistance and support for the promotion of democratization, but only at the specific request of the member state.
Evidence for electoral integrity and malpractices
Attempts to document evidence of violations of international standards of electoral integrity can be found in the electoral observer monitoring reports published after each election by regional organizations.
Comparative evidence is also available from the expert survey of Perceptions of Electoral Integrity conducted by the Electoral Integrity Project directed by Pippa Norris at the University of Sydney and Harvard University. This includes the report, part of an annual series, "The year in Elections, 2013" monitoring the quality of 73 presidential and parliamentary elections.
- Electoral fraud
- Political corruption
- Political finance
- Venice Commission
- Voting rights
- Universal Declaration of Human Rights
- Pippa Norris. 2014. Why electoral integrity matters. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- John Hardin Young. 2009. International Election Principles: Democracy and the Rule of Law. Chicago: American Bar Association.
- European Commission for Democracy through Law (Venice Commission). October 2002. Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters: Guidelines and Explanatory Report. Venice: Venice Commission
- Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCEOSCE). 2010. Election Observation Handbook, 6th edition. Warsaw: OSCE/ODIHR.
- Carter Center