Political Science Electoral Assistance
Max Bader
  • LAST REVIEWED: 16 September 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0261


The late 1980s and early 1990s witnessed a rapid global expansion of democracy. During these years, international actors increasingly engaged in democracy promotion, that is, assistance to foreign governments and nongovernmental organizations with the goal to support the further spread of democracy. Democracy promotion targets many different areas related to the functioning of democracy, including elections. To the extent that it is specifically aimed at advancing the conduct of democratic elections, it is referred to as electoral assistance. Narrow definitions limit electoral assistance to technical assistance to foreign governments with the organization of elections. Such technical assistance includes advice on electoral systems and electoral legislation, assistance with setting up electoral management bodies, and support for voter registration and voter education initiatives. Broader definitions of electoral assistance also include election monitoring by international observers. Technical assistance and election observation, in sum, are often regarded as the two forms of electoral assistance. Technical assistance programs are implemented by election specialists and do not attract significant attention from academic researchers. Due to its greater visibility, substantial political weight, and the political controversies around it, international election observation has, by contrast, been the subject of several dozen academic studies, most of which have been published from the mid-2000s. Altogether the number of academic publications on international election observation is far greater than the number of publications on technical electoral assistance. A wide range of organizations, including intergovernmental organizations and government-funded nongovernmental organizations, are involved in electoral assistance. The most important organizations among providers of technical assistance are the European Union, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), but dozens of other actors are involved in technical assistance as well. The field of organizations involved in international election observation has become more crowded over the years, such that some elections are now monitored by dozens of different groups. The most consistent and prominent of these groups are the organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the European Union, and the Carter Center.

General Overviews

There is a great variety of actors who have been involved in providing electoral assistance, including intergovernmental organizations, agencies affiliated with foreign governments, and foreign nongovernmental organizations. The activities of these organizations are diverse and tend to change over time. Moreover, there have been distinct trends in electoral assistance influenced by new ideas about political transitions and the role that international engagement can play in political transitions. These circumstances make it difficult to provide a comprehensive assessment of the effectiveness of electoral assistance. There is a small number of publications, such as Koenig-Archibugi 1997 and Reilly 2003, which attempt to provide a general overview of the universe of electoral assistance. Some publications, including Binder 2009 and Democracy Reporting International 2014, have a retrospective character, looking back on the activities of providers of electoral assistance from the moment electoral assistance became a major component of international engagement with the political transition of formerly authoritarian states in the early 1990s. These publications make clear that electoral assistance has remained an elusive, ever-changing form of international engagement that is poorly investigated. The publications provide lessons for electoral assistance about the importance of political context, the need for comprehensive approaches, and careful planning.

  • Bargiacchi, Fabio, Mette Bakken, Paul Guerin, and Ricardo Godinho Gomes. The Electoral Cycle Approach: Effectiveness and Sustainability of Electoral Assistance. ISPI Working Paper, July 2011.

    This paper introduces the electoral cycle approach as a tool for electoral assistance. It also discusses recent developments in electoral assistance and reflects upon the lessons that have been learnt in electoral assistance.

  • Binder, Christina. “Two Decades of International Electoral Support: Challenges and Added Value.” Max Planck Yearbook of United Nations Law Online 13.1 (2009): 213–246.

    Two decades after electoral assistance became a major element in democracy promotion, this publication analyzed to what extent electoral assistance can really contribute democratic elections. Its three core sections consecutively discuss applicable standards for electoral assistance, the activities of providers of electoral assistance, and their impact.

  • Darnolf, Staffan. “International Election Support: Helping or Hindering Democratic Elections?” Representation 47.4 (2011): 361–382.

    DOI: 10.1080/00344893.2011.615535

    This article assesses the effectiveness of electoral assistance, in particular in regard to technical assistance. It identifies five types of technical assistance and highlights several risks, challenges, and solutions related to these types of assistance.

  • Democracy Reporting International. Mapping of International Electoral Assistance. A Study for the Swiss Development Co-operation, 22 September 2014.

    This report, commissioned by the Swiss Development Co-operation, presents an overview of electoral assistance by foreign governments and international organizations. It lists the main players in electoral assistance and describes their strategies and methods and their core activities.

  • Kelley, Judith G. “International Influences on Elections in New Multiparty States.” Annual Review of Political Science 15 (2012): 203–220.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-polisci-030810-110805

    This article discusses indirect and direct international influences on elections and reviews existing research on the ability of international actors to improve the quality of elections. Among the international influences on elections it distinguishes electoral assistance, international election observation, legal advice, post-election management.

  • Koenig-Archibugi, Mathias. “International Electoral Assistance.” Peace Review 9.3 (1997): 357–364.

    DOI: 10.1080/10402659708426077

    In this early article on electoral assistance it is argued that the impact of international engagement with elections, such as through electoral assistance, is often overlooked.

  • Kumar, Krishna. “Postconflict Elections and International Assistance.” In Postconflict Elections, Democratization, and International Assistance. Edited by Krishna Kuma, 5–14. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

    In this opening chapter of a volume on elections in post-conflict societies, the author discusses the role that international community can play in helping organize peaceful elections after conflict. The author in this regard discusses election monitoring, the development of an electoral infrastructure, the creation of political requisites for peaceful elections, and the importance of peacekeeping operations.

  • Reilly, Benjamin. International Electoral Assistance: A Review of Donor Activities and Lessons Learned. Conflict Research Unit Working Paper 17, June 2003.

    This paper serves as a background paper for a broader project about institution-building in post-conflict societies. It draws a number of lessons from international engagement with post-conflict elections. These lessons are related to the timing of elections, the appropriateness of different electoral systems, and assistance to electoral management bodies.

  • Tuccinardi, Domenico, Paul Guerin, Fabio Bargiacchi, and Linda Maguire. ACE Focus on Effective Electoral Assistance. ACE Electoral Knowledge Network, 2007.

    This publication analyses initiatives in the area of electoral assistance by the European Commission, the United Nations Development Programme and International IDEA, and the recent establishment of the EC-UNDP Joint Task Force on Effective Electoral Assistance. It argues for a holistic approach to electoral assistance.

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