Friday, 14 June 2013

Working towards a common goal: practitioners and academics discuss current challenges to electoral integrity

From left to right: Chad Vickery (IFES), Aleida Ferreyra (UNDP), Betilde Munoz-Pogossian (OAS), David Carroll (The Carter Center), Eric Bjornlund (Democracy International), Annette Faith-lihic (IDEA), Staffan Darnolf (IFES)

Practitioners from a wide range of organizations including UNDP, OASThe Carter Center, IFES, Democracy International and International IDEA, joined academics in discussing concepts and challenges to electoral integrity at the 2013 Annual Workshop of the Electoral Integrity Project, wich took place at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. The conference provided a much-needed platform for an exchange of ideas between practitioners and researchers; specifically, a panel of practitioners on the workshop's second day highlighted three issues that extremely useful to academics working on democracy-related topics.


The practitioners first focused on subjects in need of further research. While an abundance of research centers on during-elections shortcomings like fraud and vote buying, there is still a great need to add to the literature focusing on factors—structural and circumstantial—that hinder democracy. For example, among the topics suggested for further research by the Organization for Independent States’  Betilde Munoz-Pogossian was (1) the use of social media to report election irregularities and violence before, during, and after the elections; (2) campaign and party finance which may both enable the citizen body to make a more informed decision on Election Day and hold politicians accountable for the mechanisms with which they receive and spend funds; and finally, (3) a subject that was unanimously supported by the panel: studies evaluating the impact international organizations’ projects have on the ground. These topics are fast-changing and challenging to study, however the knowledge produced by them is one that is greatly needed by the practitioner world and which most likely will be utilized to inform policy-making decisions.

The second issue brought up at the panel was the need to focus academic research on both prediction by identifying empirical patterns as well as explaining consequences; currently we’re seeing more research on the latter than on the former. This may be a controversial issue to some extent, given that each election is the product of unique historical, social, political, and cultural factors; however it is well worth asking the research community if recurrent factors can be identified which can then be linked with the occurrence of certain events. For example, are there factors that can predict vote rigging or when a certain type of social media will be used over another. “Predictions rather than explanations” was the takeaway and emphasized by IFES regional director, Chad Vickery.

Lastly, a strong emphasis was placed on bridging the gap, to the extent possible, separating researchers and practitioners. Indeed, several academics might be working on a subject, and practitioners looking for experts on that same subject, and yet the connection is never made. During the question and answer period, academics agreed. Both Essex’s Sarah Birch and Yale’s Susan Hyde stressed that a common platform matching academics’ research interests with practitioners’ needs is necessary in order to help bridge the gap.
The 2013 “Concepts and Challenges to Electoral Integrity” workshop proved to be a needed and useful step towards that end. We look forward to assess the progress being made in next year's   conference (happening conjunctively with the Australian Political Science Association annual conference) at the University of Sydney, where the understanding of challenges to electoral integrity will be expanded in scope and strengthened in depth and where, once more, a rare opportunity for academics and practitioners to meet will yield a productive conversation about the constant challenges to the advancement of democracy.

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