Election Observation – how to get involved

I sometimes get asked about election observation missions – who organises them and how to get involved. So here is a short guide – mainly from a UK point of view, but also useful for those from other countries, I hope.

There are a number of organisations which run election observation missions. Some are domestic groups (ie they observe in their home country) and some are international groups. The major international groups include:

  • the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) which consists of 57 member countries and organises missions via its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR);
  • The EU (not just the 27 member states. Canada, Norway and Switzerland are among those who join in with missions and UK ministers have told me that they are minded to continue to participate in some missions after the final Brexit deal is signed, but we are on hiatus at the moment);
  • IRI and NDI which are US non-governmental organisations;
  • The African Union;
  • The Organisation of American States;
  • The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS – many of the former Soviet Union states)
  • The Carter Center, a foundation set up by former US President Jimmy Carter.

In general, all groups organise missions in a similar way. They will have a core team of experts which may include people skilled in political affairs, in election systems and procedures, in election law, in gender and national minorities issues, in media, campaign finance and so on.

In addition to this, there will usually be a group of long term observers (LTOs). These are experienced observers who are deployed in teams of two across the country. Each team will have a defined region to cover and their job is to observe the political campaign and the preparations by local election administrators, NGOs, media and so on.

Most missions also have short term observers (STOs) whose task is to observe polling day itself by going from polling station to polling station and seeing what is happening there. They will also watch the count and tabulation process. STOs also work in pairs and mix nationalities in each team. Where possible, each team will have a man and a woman and a mixture of experience. 

Depending on which organisation and what country, missions might be larger or smaller. A big OSCE mission might have as many as 90 LTOs and 700 STOs. A small mission might just be a group of experts looking at a few key aspects of the process.

And yes, observation takes place in just about every country including the UK. The aim is to see whether a country has laws and processes in place that meet the internationally agreed standards to which they have signed up AND to see whether the conduct of the individual election meets the requirements of the law. People often ask whether a particular election was ‘free and fair’ and, whilst that is good shorthand, reports are always more nuanced than this. Even a positive report (such as that on the recent Armenian Parliamentary election) will contain suggestions for the future.

Each mission has an offical working language. At present, these are limited to English for OSCE missions and some EU, plus French, Spanish and Portuguese for other EU missions. If you want to apply for a mission where the language is not your native one then you will be asked to undertake a language test and the expected standard is C1 – ie complete fluency.

A key requirement for all observers is to be objective and neutral. Just because something is being done in a different way from your home country, doesn’t mean it is wrong. There is an internationally agreed code of conduct and standard for observation which all of the reputable organisations are signed up to. One of the requirements is not to have any conflicts of interest such as declared support for one of the participating candidates or parties.

From the UK perspective, both LTOs and STOs are seconded. In other words they are chosen by the Foreign Office and proposed to OSCE or the EU. The UK contracts out the management to two ‘focal points’:

British East West Centre (BEWC)

Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD)

A third focal point – the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) has recently removed itself from the contractor list. Their work was carried out by David Kidger Associates and it may be that he becomes a focal point in his own right in the future.

WFD runs a database and prospective observers can register to receive emails as and when a mission is announced. BEWC advertises missions on its website. For both EU and OSCE missions, observers also need to be registered on their system.

As for money, international election observation (outside of core team roles) is not going to provide enough for a living, but you will not be out of pocket for individual missions either. UK observers receive a per diem to cover accommodation and food and this amount depends on the country where you are working. It can range from about €100 to €240 per day. Any per diem that you don’t spend can be kept. You will also receive money to pay for drivers and interpreters (who are chosen for you), fuel and so on and any of this money that is not spent must be returned. Flights and insurance is also taken care of. On top of this, LTOs (but not STOs) receive a small wage.

That’s basically it. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch – alexfolkes@gmail.com