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OAS’s Electoral Observation: Evolving to Good

Reading Time: 7 minutesThe Organization of American States has learned a lot about how to monitor elections in the last half century. But it took us a while to get here.
Reading Time: 7 minutes

OAS Electoral Observation Mission for the Municipal elections in Costa Rica. Photos: Courtesy of OEA-OAS.

Reading Time: 7 minutes

This year the Organization of Americas States (OAS) marks 50 years of observing electoral processes in the region and–more recently–beyond. Those efforts have helped strengthen democracy and have become critical tools and functions for the OAS and other international organizations. Over the course of the last half century we have professionalized the work and have learned a lot.

Perhaps the most important lesson is that the era when one country or group of countries could dictate what constituted free and fair elections is over. The OAS operates by consensus, and that has served as an effective means to guarantee the evolution of free and fair elections over the past half century. A second lesson: today the work of an OAS election observation mission goes beyond just exposing irregularities—a point that is often not understood. Experience has taught us the importance of focusing on the broader quality of an electoral process. This, in turn, requires evaluating the behavior of all actors that influence or guide the electoral process as a whole. OAS missions, without discarding many of the traditional activities associated with monitoring the day of the election, now focus on the “conditions of electoral competition.”

Since the first electoral observation mission deployed in 1962, the OAS’s engagement in the hemisphere’s electoral processes can be categorized in three stages. The first was “marginal” missions that took place outside the margin of institutional practice and without a permanent mandate. The second stage was one of “dissuasive” missions aimed at countering fraud that would modify the popular will. Last is the stage of “substantive” missions oriented toward the full exercise of human rights and focusing on the quality of electoral processes.

Borrowing, with a slight twist, the title of a classic Western film, they can be characterized as the “good, the bad and the ugly.” Missions in the early years of the 1960s and 1970s were “bad” in the sense that they reflected the unilateralism dominating the hemisphere. The “ugly” refers to missions that established a significant presence in the country but actually overshadowed local or national oversight or institutional capacity.
The third “good” stage in the continuing evolution of OAS international electoral observation missions—the focus of this article—was launched in 2005, with the signing of the Declaration of Principles of International Observation.

Becoming Professionals

The process of professionalization and standardization of electoral observation is one of the most significant advances in OAS efforts to generate more equitable conditions in electoral competition. It started in 2006 when the OAS Department for Electoral Cooperation and Observation (DECO) developed a standard methodology for electoral observation that was published in the “Manual of Criteria for the Electoral Observation of the OAS.”

The next step was to standardize the procedures for dispatching and managing election observation missions. The OAS created a manual that detailed all of the procedural aspects necessary to carry out an electoral observation mission: the terms of reference and criteria for the selection of mission team members; the conditions for accepting an invitation to deploy a mission.1 The questionnaires for international observers; and the standard formats for final narrative reports. This manual also defines the functions of the chiefs of mission, who are chosen by the OAS General Secretariat taking into consideration their “high level of experience and soundness of judgment.” Chiefs of mission come from all ends of the ideological spectrum and are selected on the basis of their political and/or academic experience, as well as their ability to maintain fluid channels of communication with key actors in the electoral process.

Though the institutionalization of observation methodology and procedures was fundamental, it became clear that properly observing an election involved much more than monitoring the voting process on election day. It was necessary to develop methods and tools to facilitate an exhaustive analysis of the electoral process, focusing on quality and equity.

Based on this assessment, the OAS established, as a core principle of its observation, a focus on whether all citizens and actors involved in the process are able to exercise their political rights in conditions of equality. Four methodological tools have been developed to observe the most relevant aspects of an election: the participation of men and women in elections; the balance of the media’s coverage of the campaign and electoral process; the efficient and secure use of electoral technology; and the financing of campaigns and elections.2

Compared to organizations like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the OAS was a relative latecomer to the development of rigorous instruments for observation. In recent years, the OAS, besides enhancing the professionalism and technical capacity of its observation missions, has positioned itself in international forums as a key exemplar in the area of professional international electoral observation.

Taking It on the Road

The clearest indication that the improvements of the last few years have produced successful results is the expansion of the OAS’ work, both in the hemisphere and beyond.

In the hemisphere, several advances stand out. First, the OAS has incorporated new member states, adding to the pool of countries that can be observed by the OAS. Today, there are 11 countries in Latin America where the OAS has observed at least 10 elections.3 Furthermore, in the last five years, there are seven countries—particularly in the Anglophone Caribbean and the 2012 Mexican presidential election—that have subjected their electoral processes to OAS observation for the first time.

This growing demand for electoral observation not only reflects the relevance of OAS electoral observation, but also its contribution—with increasing efficiency—to the organization of genuinely democratic electoral processes in the Americas.

The types of elections observed have also expanded. In 2010, for example, the OAS observed a municipal election for the first time in Costa Rica. In addition, in countries where the OAS has not observed yet, the OAS has signed cooperation agreements to accompany some of their processes and offered technical advice, with the view of creating conditions for future election observation.

Recent OAS initiatives have also positioned it as a reference point outside the hemisphere. First, the OAS has signed cooperation agreements with both countries and electoral organizations, such as the African Union (AU), the OSCE, and the Electoral Commission of the Russian Federation. In the case of Russia, this year the OAS signed a broad agreement to cooperate in election management and oversight and, at Russia’s request, translated into Russian and reproduced the OAS manual for observation of the use of electoral technology.

The OAS has also participated in technical missions outside the hemisphere, assisting the AU in monitoring general elections in Angola and Togo. The OAS General Secretariat also invited AU representatives to be part of OAS missions in countries such as Colombia in 2007. During the Arab Spring in 2011, the OAS took part in a meeting in Cairo organized by UN Women that sought to promote south-south cooperation by examining political and social challenges facing women in Egypt as well as other regions in the world.

Going Beyond Observation

Understanding the value added by OAS election efforts requires a more holistic view of an electoral process. The technical recommendations formulated by an OAS Observation Mission constitute a necessary step of a broader process that encompasses the entire electoral cycle.

It is thus fitting that the old notion of technical assistance has been jettisoned in favor of a concept of cooperation that entails a longer term relationship of institution building and reform. Through the technical cooperation section of DECO, the recommendations published in final reports have resulted in 17 projects between 2007 and 2012. Besides their direct impact, the OAS recommendations also serve as the catalyst for national and local actions. An example of this is the recent electoral reform in Colombia that, although it did not receive direct support from the OAS, took into consideration many of the findings and recommendations of previous OAS mission reports.

In this context, the opportunity for cooperation constitutes an essential new dimension. A concrete example of this is the technical cooperation mission that the OAS completed in Bolivia in 2009. The international community had concluded that it was not possible to move forward with the government’s plan to implement a Biometric Register—an electoral register that uses fingerprints, picture and a signature for voter identification—before the 2009 elections. The OAS stepped in and provided technical cooperation to implement this crucial system. As a result of these efforts, registration in Bolivia was not only successfully completed on time, the number of citizens registered on the new register exceeded the previous list. The development of this tool along with the registration effort contributed to making the December 2009 general elections viable.


Our 50 years of experience have allowed us to gradually transform electoral observation missions from simple ad hoc instruments deployed on election day. The process of evolution has seen election observation grow into a genuine tool for technical cooperation and political integration, becoming a cornerstone for the strengthening of democracy in the hemisphere.

The past two decades of experience in improving and strengthening democracy in the hemisphere have revealed that the electoral process needs to fulfill two fundamental tasks: ensuring that the popular will is reflected in the voting booths and results are respected, and generating a level playing field of electoral competition. Traditionally, a broad presence of observers on election day was considered an effective deterrent to fraud. In the current political climate, the strengthening of electoral institutions as well as improvements in electoral organization has relegated this aspect of the mission to a secondary task, limited to the compilation and monitoring of complaints.

The last five years have seen a deepened focus on pre-election conditions, exemplified by the creation of standardized methodologies. This focus reflects an explicit recognition that the full exercise of human rights, specifically political rights, is at the center of the work of electoral observation—and that begins in the pre-electoral and campaign period.

From this point of view, the “objects of observation” should include all aspects of the electoral process and not be limited—as was traditionally done—to the institutional practices of the state.

Future missions should comprise specialists who can begin gathering the necessary observation-related information in the host country as soon as the invitation is received. These specialists should establish themselves in the country as early as possible, as should small groups of observers in key locations throughout the country to monitor and track allegations of electoral crimes and abuses. These efforts should also continue several days after the voting.

In light of the contemporary debate on international electoral observation, the OAS recognizes the importance of better educating specialists, the academic community, the donor community and the general public about the functions, powers, limitations and potential of electoral observation missions. The commemoration of 50 years of OAS electoral observation provides an opportune moment not only to reflect on the progress made in the hemisphere but also on the development of an agenda for the future of electoral observation missions, always with the aim of protecting and expanding the full exercise of human rights, an aim which today enjoys universal consensus.



[1] Article 24 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter establishes that “the Electoral Observation Missions will be implemented through solicitation of the interested Member State (…)” Although the OAS may receive an invitation to Observe from any Member State, the “Manual for the Electoral Observation Missions of the Organization of American States,” accessible here establishes specific criteria determining the conditions that must be fulfilled in order for the OAS to accept an invitation to observe the electoral process of any Member State.

[2] So far, two manuals of methodologies have been published: “Methodology for the Observation of Communications Media in Elections, A Manual for Electoral Observation Missions of the OAS,” accessible here; and “Observation of the Use of Electoral Technology; A Manual for the Electoral Observation Missions of the OAS,” accessible here. Publication of the Manuals of two other methodologies, entitled “The Incorporation of Gender Perspective into the Electoral Observation Missions of the OAS” and “Methodology for the Observation of the Schemas of Politico-Electoral Financing in the EOMs/OAS,” 2012, is forthcoming..

[3]Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela.


Tags: Electoral observation, OAS
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