In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Election Observation and the Detection of Fraud

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • How Observation Works in Practice
  • Observations and Democracy Promotion
  • Protests
  • The Complexities of Observation Missions
  • Regional Observation Studies: Africa
  • Regional Observation: Former Soviet Countries
  • Forensics and Fraud

Political Science Election Observation and the Detection of Fraud
Thad Hall
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0260


Democratic governance, the idea that the will of the people “shall be the basis of the authority of government,” is a key principle in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Elections are generally viewed as a cornerstone of democracy, especially when coupled with key rights such as freedom of speech and freedom to organize into political parties and civil society organizations. As countries have transitioned to democratic rule—or have wanted to give the impression of having made such a transition—elections have become an important milestone, and election observation missions have become a common activity. Democratic elections are difficult, often because those in power do not want to lose their position. There is an array of ways that autocrats can manipulate the electoral process so that they win. Election observers exist to observe the election and either to deter fraud or at least to document its existence and whether the fraud was potentially material to the outcome of the election. This cat-and-mouse game between election observers and autocrats has led to the development of new election observation techniques, new election forensics to identify election fraud, and new strategies by autocrats to overcome the changes in tactics made by the observers.

General Overviews

There are three streams of work associated with election observation and fraud detection. Johnstone and Snyder 2016 and Encarnación 2011 provide strong overviews of the first stream: democracy promotion. The second stream is election observation, a subcomponent of democracy promotion. Hyde 2011 and Kelley 2012 are the seminal books on the rise of election observation and when observations are likely to be successful or unsuccessful. Third, there are works on election forensics, which explain how election fraud can be identified. Schedler 2002 is considered the seminal work explaining the ways in which fraud can be conducted. Goodwin-Gill 2006 provides the baseline for understanding what a “free and fair” election should look like. Alvarez, et al. 2009 provides an overview of election fraud while Hicken and Mebane 2015 reviews the various statistical techniques for identifying election fraud.

  • Alvarez, R. Michael, Thad E. Hall, and Susan D. Hyde, eds. Election Fraud: Detecting and Deterring Electoral Manipulation. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2009.

    Combines a discussion with what constitutes election fraud with various statistical and evaluative techniques for detecting election fraud. Examines both US and international election fraud and many different data sources for examining this important problem.

  • Encarnación, Omar G. “Assisting Civil Society and Promoting Democracy.” In The Oxford Handbook of International Organizations. Edited by Jacob Katz Cogan, Ian Hurd, and Ian Johnstone. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    Discusses the role of civil organizations in democracy promotion. Considers how civil society can be a double-edged sword for democracy promotion and that growing democracy can be difficult to sustain without social and economic development activities that create wealth and an educated society. Notes how civil society groups are most problematic when they are sectarian.

  • Goodwin-Gill, Guy S. Free and Fair Elections. Geneva, Switzerland: Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2006.

    This is a comprehensive overview of the development of legal standards and international norms that define what constitutes a free and fair election. It is an excellent primary on the constituent parts of an election and the way in which laws can shape or misshape the ability of individuals to participate freely and fairly. It combines historical development of standards with a discussion of how free and fair elections look across electoral activities.

  • Hicken, Allen, and Walter R. Mebane Jr. “A Guide to Election Forensics.” New York: Institute of International Education, 2015.

    This guide is an excellent overview of various election forensic methods and techniques used to detect election fraud and anomalies. Techniques such as hotspot analyses, various digit tests, turnout analyses, and examinations of vote flow patterns are all considered.

  • Hyde, Susan D. The Pseudo-Democrat’s Dilemma: Why Election Observation Became an International Norm. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.7591/cornell/9780801449666.001.0001

    Hyde uses signaling theory to show how the international community expects countries to allow international election observers. Not allowing observers suggests that autocrats have something to hide, making the international community less willing to provide benefits, such as aid. Focuses on the strategic actions of autocrats and observers, with autocrats trying different methods of electoral manipulation and observers seeking to identify these manipulations.

  • Johnstone, Ian, and Michael Snyder. “Democracy Promotion.” In The Oxford Handbook of International Organizations. Edited by Jacob Katz Cogan, Ian Hurd, and Ian Johnstone, 508–534. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

    It puts election observation missions in the larger context of democracy promotion and differentiates between political and development approaches to democracy promotion. Explains the role of election monitoring in democracy promotion and the factors needed for success. Dovetails nicely with Kelley 2012 and Hyde 2011.

  • Kelley, Judith G. Monitoring Democracy: When International Election Observation Works, and Why It Often Fails. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012.

    An innovative study examining the difference election observers can make and the problems they can encounter. Discusses incentives observers create for better elections as well as the problems associated with observer biases and political pressures. Strong discussion of how the success of election observers is predicated on their quality, the quality of the mission, and the country’s internal politics.

  • Schedler, Andreas. “The Menu of Manipulation.” Journal of Democracy 13.2 (2002): 36–50.

    DOI: 10.1353/jod.2002.0031

    The seminal article on election manipulations and how they undermine democracy. Lists seven conditions that must be met for effective democratic choice to occur and how violating these conditions creates the façade of democracy.

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