There have been a plethora of national elections in many new democracies, like Georgia, Kenya, and Nigeria, as well as countries not known for their democratic process, like Zimbabwe, Egypt, and Russia.

And in every news story or feature on the elections the lead paragraph mentions the “international observers” that are in the country to guarantee a free and open election.

georgia parliamentary election

Citizens cast votes in Georgia’s 2012 parliamentary elections

I always think of Jimmy Carter and the Carter Center’s attendance at elections in Central America and Asia where he and the team declared elections fair or under suspension.

There was a brouhaha in the last United States presidential election when some countries said they would send observers to the U.S. to make sure everyone had access to vote.

Shades of 2000 and 2008.

But what exactly is an “international observer” and what are they observing?

One of our partners, Brian McCotter, has extensive experience in the democracy and governance sector and has been an observer for elections for many years. Working primarily for the National Democratic Institute (NDI), a Washington, D.C.-based civil society organization, he has been involved in elections in South Africa, Malawi, Mozambique, and Georgia, where he now lives in Tbilisi.

Brian was an observer for last year’s Parliamentary Election in Georgia, which saw the voting in of a new prime minister and majority government—much to the surprise and shock of the incumbent party. Western-style campaign tactics, like negative advertising, and the flood of messages on mass and social media led to a record voter turnout—always a good thing in elections—and the voting out of the incumbent party.

Georgia has Presidential elections this October. Brian will likely be an observer for these elections as well.

Knowing he was going to be engaged in the upcoming election, and with voting issues at the front of my mind, I asked Brian to give us a “day-in-the-life” of an observer and a few talking points on what an observer’s responsibilities are.

Here we go:

1. Election observers come in all shapes and sizes, genders, and professional backgrounds. Although most have experience in some level or government, politics or international organizations.  Most international observers do not come from the country they’re observing in, but have some tie to or experience in that country. It’s helpful for an observer to understand the culture, context and environment in which he or she is working.

2. Long-term observers begin working on an election up to six months (often four) before Election Day, and oversee the planning and progress of the elections. During that prep time they look for red flags like voter roll fraud, illegal campaigning, media bias and political intimidation. Long-term observers work to keep problems to a minimum.

“Many of the problems with elections don’t really happen on election day,” Brian said. “Influence of the election happens long before the elections. Dead people voting, people voting four times, all kinds of things.”

3. Short-term observing is typically a five to seven day commitment that begins three days before the election and focuses on making sure elections are carried out fairly and appropriately. Brian has participated in both long-term and short-term observation missions, though the past four elections he observed were short-term.

The process for a short-term observer begins with a series of briefings by local and international NGOs—organized by the institution (NDI in Brian’s case) that is managing the observation mission. Along with representatives of political parties and the Central Electoral Commission, they walk observers through the rules and specifics of the election – also highlighting problem regions or issues that are topical. Everybody receives a briefing book—their “Election Bible”—to follow for the country’s election.

4. On Election Day, observers will visit 10 or 20 polling stations. Start time varies by country, but it’s always a big day. Following the voting, observers stay to watch the counting.

“Election Day is a long day,” Brian says. Counting usually goes until 4:00 a.m, so it’s not uncommon for an observer to work 24 hours straight on Election Day!

georgia parliamentary election

Central Election Commission employees prepare to register voters for Georgia’s parliamentary elections.

5. Observers carry a checklist and fill out a form to make sure the each polling station is adhering to the rules.  Each observer or team can then record their results and document what they witnessed at each station.

6. If there are problems: Report. Report. Report. Observers report to a number of different people. They may raise fraud issues with the Electoral Commission, or more often report back to a central office run by their sponsoring organization who then reports to the central electoral commission or further investigates.

“To be honest, most of the time everything is fine,” Brian said. “Observing can be a mundane, laborious process if the elections go well. And that’s exactly what you want. You want it to be a mundane, boring process that is well run.

“[Sometimes] new observers are a bit too keen to find fraud and problems, when often, particularly in an election that’s fairly well run, there are more human errors and administrative mistakes than conspiracy and malfeasance.”

As Georgia’s presidential election draws nearer, long-term observers are, at this very moment, working to ensure a fair election takes place in October. Election observers are valuable assets for promoting and preserving the democratic process in countries around the world.



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