Photo by Observador Electoral 2019. (from the Cueva)
My seatmate pulled out her phone the moment our packed plane touched down in El Salvador three days before the country’s February 3 presidential elections. She began furiously scrolling through her Facebook feed, her face lit up with campaign slogans, articles and the smiling faces of candidates Nayib Bukele, Carlos Calleja and Hugo Martinez. Peering over her shoulder, I watched as she punched out a comment lambasting corrupt status-quo politicians. “El Salvador doesn’t need another leader who steals from us,” she typed. “Bukele deserves a chance.” The goal of my trip to El Salvador was to assist our local partners with a USAID-funded election-day observation. NDI supported a consortium of Salvadoran universities and a civil society organization, together called Observador Electoral 2019, to recruit, train and deploy 850 Salvadoran election observers to monitor a statistically representative sample of 700 polling stations nationwide.
When we arrived in Jinja, a row of bicycles for rent were neatly lined up outside the partner organization’s office. We met inside, amidst bicycles in various states of repair, leaflets and posters on cycling and a stretcher designed to be hitched to bicycles. This all seemed a little incongruous, given a conversation about vote buying and selling. Eventually, I had to ask about the relationship between bicycles and vote buying.
Brazilians take to the streets to protest rampant government corruption on March 13, 2016. Photo by Agencia Brazil (CC BY 3.0 BR)
What do Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez have in common? They’ve all been branded as populists, both celebratorily and scathingly. As Brazil heads to elections on October 7, all eyes are on ultra-conservative candidate Jair Bolsonaro – who brazenly rejects political correctness, defends Brazil’s authoritarian past and promises to upend the establishment – as the latest in a line of political strongmen turning citizen malaise into electoral success. Charismatic populist leaders present society as divided into two separate and homogeneous entities: the corrupt elite, and the pure people who the corrupt have oppressed. Proclaiming their direct link to the people (often enabled by social networks), they tend to eschew representative institutions and checks and balances. While left-wing populists take a class-based approach pitting working and middle-class people against a greedy economic elite, right-wing populists typically define the people as an exclusive group along ethnic, racial or national lines.
Elections are one of the most critical elements of any democratic system, but also one of the moments where democracy is most vulnerable. Politicians compete to take control of the executive, become representatives in legislatures and sometimes appoint judges across branches of government, and the information environment plays a crucial role in the debates that decide who will represent the will of the people. This environment is increasingly mediated by the internet, through social media platforms, messaging apps, email and a wealth of new tools and applications that come online every day. Unfortunately, this new online environment is also increasingly polluted by disinformation.
The Election Observation Group (ELOG) in Kenya used a unique data entry tool to match observer-captured images to official election documents
The August 2017 presidential election in Kenya was clouded by accusations of fraud and doubts about the accuracy of results posted on the Independent Elections and Boundary Committee (IEBC) website. Some groups alleged that information from the official polling-station-level presidential results forms (Form 34A) posted on the website may have been altered during the transmission of the forms from polling stations to the national level. The Kenyan Supreme Court’s ultimately annulled the August elections and called for a fresh presidential contest in October 2017. To promote accountability and transparency, NDI provided technical assistance to the Elections Observation Group (ELOG) to deploy 766 observers to polling stations across the country to systematically observe the fresh elections. Election observers were also instructed to take pictures of the completed Form 34As at their polling stations and send the images to the organization through designated WhatsApp numbers to verify the credibility of the data. Five-hundred and forty observers submitted clear photos of the Form 34As from the polling stations. With technical support from NDI, ELOG developed an online system to compare these forms with their official online counterpart.
The author on Tubman Boulevard in Monrovia struggling to hear a call about logistics from fellow NDI staff while running other Election Day errands (photo credit: Madeline Wilson)
Two former presidents and a former foreign minister sat in a conference room while I searched for a hat. It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but it was the very real start to December 25, 2017, the eve of the Liberian presidential runoff.
International electoral espionage is bigger than one election, one person and one country. It is also bigger than elections themselves. It is a direct threat to our democracy and to other countries around the globe.
Headlines are warning us about Russian “mischief” in the U.S. elections. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Director of National Intelligence have said they are confident that the Russian government is behind hacks into US email accounts and that cyber-probes of some state election systems may also be traced to Russia. A group of prominent national security and defense experts has predicted that Russian hackers will use the stolen emails to build credibility, then leak fake documents in order to manipulate voters’ opinions and, possibly, choices at the ballot box. These cyber-espionage and disinformation campaigns sound like the stuff of spy novels, except they’re real. What’s going on?
“Le Magnific” fires up the crowd at a concert for peace in Côte d’Ivoire.
Democratic elections resolve a legitimate competition for power through peaceful, rather than violent, means. They constitute a critical moment in the life of a democracy, where citizens have the right to express their will through the ballot box and a peaceful transfer of power takes place. However, this is not always the case. During the 2010 elections in Côte d’Ivoire – the country’s first election in 10 years – former President Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down after narrowly losing in a run-off to Alassane Ouattara, triggering widespread violence that left over 3,000 people dead and thousands displaced. To mitigate the potential for violence as the 2015 presidential election approached, NDI assisted civil society organizations to monitor the elections, draft Codes of Conduct and spread messages promoting nonviolent conflict resolution.