New research on the impact of election monitoring on election fraud

Every once in a while, I run into exciting new research that leaves me wondering — why the heck didn’t I think about doing that myself? It’s particularily exciting when excellent new research is being done by the next generation of scholars, especially those who are just now completing their dissertation research.

Research like this is being done by Susan Hyde, who is finishing her dissertation in political science at the University of California, San Diego, and is now a Research Fellow at the Brookings Institution. Starting in the next academic year, Hyde will be a new assistant professor at Yale University.

Hyde’s research focuses on international election monitoring, taking a look from a variety of theoretical and emprical perspectives at what is a new (and largely understudied) phenomenon. Here is the summary of Hyde’s thesis from her website:

In 1960 there were no observered elections in sovereign states. Today, it is nearly impossible for a developing country to have a legitimate election without the presence of international observers. Upwards of 80 percent of elections held in non-consolidated democracies are now monitored. This trend is particularly puzzling for the group of leaders who invite observers and then orchestrate massive electoral fraud. If we assume that autocrats want to stay in power and exert the least effort possible in order to do so, what explains their willingness to invite international observers to judge their elections?

My thesis is that election observation began as a signal to the international community that a county was democratizing. Inviting observers was in the interest of most incumbent leaders because there was little risk involved and relatively high potential benefits. The rate of observed elections increased because of increases in international benefits for looking and acting like a democracy, and because a sub-group of leaders got better at manipulating the election under the nose of international observers. In the 1990s most leaders of developing countries were inviting observers, and before long, the international community and domestic actors began to expect that observers would be invited. The act of not inviting observers became a clear signal that the incumbent leader was not committed to democratizing.

The growth of international election observation has also carried domestic consequences. The empirical evidence presented in the later part of this dissertation tests how this change in international politics has influenced domestic politics, including how the presence of observers affects opposition party behavior, and natural and field experimental tests of whether observers deter election day fraud. These domestic consequences arise from the same incentives and environment that created the norm of election observation.

One of the really exciting chapters of her thesis that is now available for public distribution is her work on the 2003 presidential elections in Armenia, available in “Can International Election Observers Deter Election Day Fraud? Evidence from a Natural Experiment” (Chapter 7 of her dissertation). In the 2003 presidential elections in Armenia, international election monitors were distributed throughout the nation using a process that Hyde argues is “functionally equilivant to random assignment” (page 15). Hyde can claim the functional equilivance of random assignment here because the polling places that were picked for observation were selected based solely on geographic location, and because the monitors themselves had little discretion on which polling places they went to. Note that this is not exactly a truly randomized experimental design, but under the assumption that the polling places were selected solely for geographic reasons, and not for any other characteristic of the polling place that might be correlated with the incumbent party’s success in this election, Hyde’s assumption that she has the rough equilivant of random assignment makes sense.

But here is the bottom line: Hyde finds that the presence of the international election monitors reduced election day fraud by around 6% in the precincts under observation in the first round of the Armenian presidential election, but with much smaller effects in the second round (demonstrating that perhaps those who were likely to try to engage in election fraud might have been deterred by the first-round monitoring teams).

This is exciting and important research. From conversations with Hyde, there is even more exciting research forthcoming. Chapter 6 from her thesis deals with a truly randomized experiment involving election monitoring in the 2004 Indonesian presidential elections. While this thesis is not available yet on her website, my understanding is that the results here are like those in the Armenian case, providing further evidence that election monitoring and observing can deter election fraud.

Hyde’s thesis work shows that there are clever new ways that social scientists can consider for studying election fraud. As all observers of election reform debates know, election fraud is frequently asserted to occur, but we rarely know the actual incidence of election fraud — nor do we know much about exactly how to deter it. Hyde’s work helps to establish some theoretical and empirical foundations for those who want to better understand both problems, and I suspect that Hyde’s research is likely to be widely-cited and very important in the future.