Voters’ faith in elections is a central tenant of any democracy. In order to increase electoral credibility, states, intergovernmental organizations, and NGOs arrange for teams of observers to monitor and report on countries’ elections. Despite monitoring’s popularity, the impact of election observers on local perceptions of electoral credibility is an under-researched topic. Although there is some research on how the presence of election observers impacts voter turnout, protest, and violence, researchers have not paid attention to how election observers shape individual perceptions and attitudes. This study looks at how the identity and assessments of election observers influence local attitudes towards the electoral process. The research was conducted in Tunisia after the country conducted elections in 2014 as it took steps to transition to democracy. Research on determinants of electoral credibility is especially important for nascent democracies like Tunisia, where the credibility of the electoral process is likely to have a long-term impact on legitimacy of the government and other institutions.
The researchers embedded their experiments in large-scale, nationally representative surveys and randomly varied the information received by the respondents regarding the assessments and the identity of the election observers. Since Tunisia had election observers from a wide range of organizations, the researchers were able to realistically vary the identity of the election observer across the treatment groups by changing information regarding their organizational affiliation. Thus, individuals in different groups learned about the presence of election observers from different countries and organizations. In a separate experiment, the researchers presented survey respondents with positive and negative assessments made by election observers regarding the election. In the first survey experiment (total sample size: 980 individuals), 353 individuals were exposed to a positive assessment of the elections by election observers, 409 individuals were exposed to a negative assessment, and 218 individuals received no information about election observers. In the second survey experiment, 1,107 respondents were divided into five treatment groups and one control group. In the treatment groups, the identity of the election observer was varied across five categories, with election observers belonging to American organizations, the European Union, the Arab League, the African Union, or Tunisian organizations.
The researchers find that election observers’ reports can have a modest but meaningful impact on attitudes of citizens regarding the electoral process. Compared to a negative assessment of the electoral process, a positive assessment enhanced perceptions of electoral credibility amongst individuals. However, the researchers also find that this effect is conditional on the individual’s vote choice – with supporters of the losing party (but not the winning party) being strongly affected by negative assessments of the election. The researchers also find that the organizational affiliation of election observers can have a significant impact on the perceived credibility of the electoral process. Election observers from organizations that Tunisians perceived as credible and unbiased can have strong and positive effects, regardless of whether the international community agrees. Individuals who learned about the presence of election observers from the Arab League were more likely to report that the elections were credible. Finally, the researchers highlight the divergence between local and international perceptions of election observers – whereas the international community does not view election observers from Arab League as credible, the local population within Tunisia does.
The authors find that election observers can increase the extent to which individuals find their country’s elections credible, but only when people think that election observers’ are capable and unbiased. Further, election observers from organizations that are viewed by the international community as lacking transparency and integrity can still be seen as being effective and unbiased by the local population. These findings indicate that international donors need to pay more attention to the identity and background of the election observer. It is important to build the capacity of organizations that are likely to be seen as effective and trustworthy by local people. The researchers also find that reports generated by election observers have a modest but meaningful impact on individual attitudes towards their country’s elections. Election observers’ positive and negative assessments impact individual attitudes towards elections, though these effects are conditional on their prior beliefs. This finding suggests that policymakers should pay attention to the underlying context within a society, and especially the extent of political polarization, when disseminating findings of election observers.