Prof. Krimmer: How to run credible elections

Recent developments here in Estonia have raised questions over how to make sure that elections are held in a credible way. Here are some of the key universally accepted principles and requirements.

While elections are essentially the expression of the socio-political culture of a country and therefore naturally depend on the context in which they are held, a certain set of common standards has evolved over time. They are best described in the United Nations’ International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which came into force in 1976 and is binding to its subscribing states, including Estonia.

The ICCPR describes in its article 25 that elections should give

„Every citizen […] the right and the opportunity […]

a) To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives;

b) To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors;

c) To have access, on general terms of equality, to public service in his country.“

These are often summarized as universal principles for elections namely that elections should be universal, direct, equal, free, secret and personal. But what does that mean in practical terms. Here the Venice Commission provides some further guidance in its Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters.

In line with this document, credible elections need:

  • An impartial electoral management, ideally composed of a judge, as well as representatives of all parties running for an election;
  • Decisions by electoral management bodies should be by consensus or qualified majority;
  • Voting procedures need to be easy;
  • Counting needs to be transparent;
  •  Allow for observers and observation of all steps of the process, including unimpeded access;
  • Allow for an effective system of appeal, with appeal procedure clearly laid out and with the appeal body to be able to decide about voting rights, outcome with the possibility to annul the elections;
  • In all cases an appeal to court must be possible.
Based of the practice of election observation, as described in OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Handbook for Election Observation, one can even derive some more practical notions for good conduct of elections, i.e. making sure amongst others that at least:

  • Ballot boxes are empty before voting starts;
  • Ballot boxes being closed with tamper-proof seals;
  • Ballot boxes being semi-transparent to allow for observation of ballot stuffing or other malpractices influencing the election results;
  • Voting and counting procedures written down in detail in law, bylaw or regulations (including counting of empty ballots before opening ballot box, counting envelopes, counting number of ballots, distributing them by party, tabulating and seeing if the protocol reconciles, etc.);
  • Full accounted for protocols and minutes of procedures exist;
  • Every stakeholder is able to receive copies of the minutes and official protocols.
It is also obvious that not all elections have to fulfill the same requirements that we put forward to elections of members of parliament or municipal offices. However, in particular if dispute over election results exist, it deems useful to draw from (international) experience on how to avoid conflict by following these principles as closely as possible.

In order to maintain the credibility of an election and in consequence legitimacy of an elected official it deems useful to seek consensus about voting procedures and outcomes. In case of appeals and other forms of minority opinions, it is essential that they are dealt with in a professional and impartial manner.

If serious concerns about the validity of an election exist, an annulment and repetition of the process are ways to regain credibility and maintain legitimacy of the process.

* This article reflects the personal opinion of the Author.

Prof. Robert Krimmer is a Professor of e-Governance at the Chair of Governance at the Ragnar Nurkse School of Innovation and Governance. This article was originally published in the Nurkse School Ideas Bank.