What Do Election Observers Do?

How Jimmy Carter really spends his time.

I’m just here to observe …

More than 500 foreign observers were on hand to monitor elections in Ethiopia on Sunday. Among them were 50 delegates from the Carter Center, including the former president himself. What exactly do these international observers do?

Most of them run around on the day of the election, take careful notes, and then write up detailed reports. Strategies vary among the different non-governmental and international organizations that do this kind of work; even a single organization might change its procedure depending on local conditions. But with the dramatic increase in election monitoring that began with the fall of the Soviet Union and continued throughout the 1990s, certain standards have begun to emerge.

The Norwegian Helsinki Committee began to assemble some basic guidelines in 1990. In 1996, it published a manual for observing elections that breaks the process down into four stages: First, study the election law in the country being observed. Second, send long-term observers to the country in advance of the election, to speak with government officials, party leaders, members of the media, academics or experts, diplomats, and representatives from minority groups. Third, observe the elections at the polling stations on the day of voting. Fourth, review your findings and write up a report.

Long-term observers are used whenever possible, but sometimes agencies can send observers only a few days before the election. At the very minimum, the short-term observers (who are almost always unpaid volunteers) should have enough time to get a sense of the region they’ll be covering and to pick about a dozen polling stations to scrutinize.

On the morning of the election, an observer might wake up at around 4 a.m. and get in a car with another observer, a driver, and a translator. They will arrive at the first polling station on their list at least an hour before it’s scheduled to open, to oversee preparations and make sure, for example, that ballot boxes are empty before they’re put out to collect votes.

Each observer carries a checklist of questions, which he or she consults as the first votes come in. Where are the unused ballots stored? Are police present? Are there any signs of voter intimidation or a lack of voter secrecy? And so on. Some checklists encourage observers to interview a few voters at each site, with spaces to fill in their answers to some basic questions. At the bottom of the checklist the observer usually states his or her overall impression of the polling station, by giving a number from 1 to 10, or by circling a phrase from “Very bad” to “Very good.”

At the end of the day, the observers will review the counting process, either at the local or national level. They make note of how many votes are being invalidated and for what reasons and where and how the ballot boxes are being opened. Observers work long days, often logging more than 24 hours without significant breaks.

During the election itself, observers can’t intervene. They can question officials about possible improprieties, but they can’t tell anyone what to do, nor can they announce any findings to the media. When the election is over, the various teams pool their findings and issue their reports.

Next question?

Explainer thanks Eric Rudenshiold of IFES.