Brown University

“Fast to Sanitize Fraud:” How International Observers Failed Voters in Kenya’s 2017 Election by Erin Brennan-Burke @ Brown University

On September 1, The Kenyan Supreme Court invalidated the reelection of President Uhuru Kenyatta – the first time a court in Africa has nullified the electoral victory of a sitting leader. The opposition candidate, Raila Odinga, protested that the results had been manipulated after Kenyatta won with a margin of 54 percent. The facts supported his claim – including the death of a top election security official in the days before the election, 5 million unverified votes, the breakdown of the electronic vote transmission system which caused totals from voting stations to be sent by text messages, and 10,000 missing ballots. The stunning judicial ruling acknowledging that the election was not “conducted in accordance with the constitution” led many Kenyans to criticize the way international observers had quickly verified and celebrated the electoral process. Odinga encapsulated this viewpoint in a statement, arguing that international observers “moved fast to sanitize fraud” and put “the status quo and ‘stability’ ahead of credible elections.” This much is clear: international observers failed voters this past August by approving a strategically stolen election in Kenya.

What is the current role of international observers? Why did they fail to detect fraud in the Kenyan election? How must their role shift to accommodate modernizations in technology and the fact that election manipulators are learning how to evade the current monitoring processes?

Since the 1990s, election observance has been a global norm – even among pseudo-democratic countries. European nations first sent observers to monitor the 1857 referendum that formed independent Romania. Now, international observers monitor elections in 85 percent of new multiparty democracies. And as Susan Hyde aptly describes in The Pseudo-Democrat’s Dilemma, “electoral autocrats” like Vladimir Putin will actually invite observers to judge elections – partly out of the realization that refusal of such international scrutiny would be an admittance of fraud. Despite this norm of observance, politicians still manage to manipulate the voting process 17 percent of the time while avoiding condemnation. International observers in Kenya verified the results of both the 1997 and 2013 presidential elections despite swirling questions about the integrity of the process.

This year, the 400 election observers in Kenya primarily monitored the election day proceedings at the polling stations to detect fraud. This fact – along with international interest in maintaining stability after the post-election bloodshed of 2007 – meant that observers such as John Kerry did not witness the manipulation of vote transmission and tallying. Strategic election manipulation is characterized by Nancy Bermeo as a trending form of democratic backsliding, since subtle actions such as intimidating opponents are more difficult for short-term observers to catch. International observers in Kenya clearly focused too narrowly on overt election day fraud and were too quick to verify the results of a fraudulent process, but the very design of the monitoring system needs to be re-thought.

The structural failures of international observation mechanisms should be reformed by conducting longer, better-resourced, and bolder monitoring missions equipped to catch strategic election manipulation.

Firstly, in order to prevent heavy focus on ballot stuffing on the day of the election, international monitoring missions should be expanded to effectively assess pre-election and post-election fraud. A longer mandate would transition the field of election observation into a more robust form of democracy observation that would flexibly respond to innovative forms of manipulation. For example, an observer group with a comprehensive approach would evaluate voter registration processes, review legal frameworks, monitor media coverage, and resolve disputes over election results. In Kenya, a longer observer mission would also have mitigated the perception of simply “flying in days before the elections, watching the voting process at scattered polling stations, then holding a press conference at a hotel in the capital at the end of the day before flying back home.” These negative attitudes towards outside observers have already decreased confidence in the efforts of the international community and further delegitimized a contested election.

Secondly, international observers should be provided the financial and human resources necessary to ensure longer monitoring missions are capable of detecting fraud. Missions are generally comprised of a small number of individuals with limited technical skills and minimal funding. In Kenya, many observers were reported to work for more than 30 hours in a row, which inevitably reduced attentiveness. Additionally, many elections in emerging democracies now rely on technology but lack the necessary technical staff to properly test the capacity and security of these systems.

Finally, monitoring missions should be bolder in the identification and denunciation of fraud – even if the protection of democracy costs regional stability. Brian Klaas of the London School of Economics has found that international observers are more likely to brand African elections as “free and fair” even when the election fraud would raise red flags in countries such as the United States. This tendency to accept low standards of legitimacy in the name of political stability or incremental progress ultimately undermines democracy. Although observers in Kenya were wary of repeated post-election violence, incumbents like Uhuru Kenyatta should not be allowed to commit abuses with the seal of international approval because the process is “good enough.”

The failure of international election observers in Kenya this past August to accurately assess the legitimacy of the election reflects broader structural weaknesses. Longer, better-resourced, and bolder external monitoring mechanisms are necessary to ensure that the label of “free and fair” truly means something.

* Thomas Mukoya, Observing, photograph, Reuters, September 6, 2017, accessed November 29, 2017.

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