Archive for August, 2015

Why Electoral Integrity Matters

Why Electoral Integrity Matters, by Pippa Norris, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2014, 297 pp., $29.99 (paperback), ISBN 978-1-107-68470-6

Following the ‘third-wave’ of global democratization, many communist and authoritarian regimes have made a transition to democratic governance. According to Freedom House, since 1974 the number of democratic political systems has more than tripled – from 39 to 125 as by 2015. Many of these newly democratic countries adopted the ‘procedural’ democracy; their success was measured through the way elections were held and the transfer of power occurred. While elections do not reveal much about the level of equality or distribution of power in a society, they do, however, constitute an important aspect of democracy. It is in this context that Pippa Norris’s Why Electoral Integrity Matters makes a significant contribution. Electoral integrity is broadly defined as a process of conducting free and fair elections by addressing electoral fraud and malpractices, administrative irregularities, and violation of democratic principles throughout an electoral cycle, beginning with the campaign period to the counting of final results. This book, a part of a six-year research project on electoral integrity, ‘is the first of a planned trilogy on the challenges of electoral integrity around the world, including why it matters, why electoral integrity fails and what can be done to address these problems’ (p.xi).

The central questions in this book are: what are the instrumental consequences of electoral integrity? And, why might flawed elections matter? Norris uses multiple sources of evidence to address these questions. The Electoral Integrity Project’s global comparative expert survey data is used to understand where elections succeed and fail and the sixth-wave of World Value Survey 2010-2014 is used to measure perceptions of electoral integrity. In order to complement these two large-scale cross-national datasets, Norris has used selected historical case studies covering a series of elections from around the world since the 1990s. Based on this unique mix of quantitative and qualitative data and an extensive survey of the literature, Norris arrives at several important theoretical and empirical conclusions. The book is divided into four parts. Part I (chapters 1-3) deals with the theoretical and conceptual foundations of electoral integrity. Part II (chapters 4-5) discusses the problem of flawed elections; Part III (chapters 6-9) examines the consequences of electoral integrity. And, the final part (chapter 10) discusses the major findings and conclusions.

Norris begins the book by reviewing the theoretical literature. According to her, most of the existing literature has focused narrowly on practices that are described as ‘fraudulent’, ‘unclean’ and ‘manipulated’ or ‘free and fair’ and ‘democratic’. For Norris, such works provide insufficient analytical boundaries and hence there is a need to redefine concepts. Her alternative conceptualization refers to electoral integrity as ‘agreed upon international conventions and universal standards about elections reflecting global norms applying to all countries worldwide throughout the electoral cycle, including during the pre-electoral period, campaign, on polling day, and its aftermath’ (p.21). Norris argues that electoral malpractices, which can violate the integrity of elections, could occur at any of these stages. The questions then are: what are the problems associated with flawed elections?; and, most importantly, ‘is the public aware of electoral malpractices (p.91)?’

Addressing these questions, Norris, in the second part, discusses the public perceptions of electoral integrity and international concerns about electoral malpractices. According to her, the public is well aware of electoral malpractices in their societies; very often such knowledge is shaped by their access to independent media and the education system. Norris further argues that ‘the quality of elections in each society do shape public concern about integrity’ (p.110). The question is: how can we improve electoral integrity? According to Norris, since the post-Cold War period, the international community has played an active role and taken several measures to improve electoral integrity around the world. Through UN agencies, NGOs and various activist groups, they have provided technical assistance and aid to overcome logistical problems. Despite such firm efforts, electoral integrity continues to be undermined by vested interest groups such as local strongman rulers, hereditary absolute monarchs and military juntas. Given this, one may ask, what happens when electoral integrity is undermined?

In part three, Norris examines the consequences of electoral integrity for legitimacy, for political behaviour, for conflict and security, and for different political systems. The evidence presented in the book shows that while electoral integrity strengthens democracy, flawed elections undermine confidence in the political institutions. They lead to lower voting participation and often trigger outbreaks of mass protests and violence. Fraudulent and rigged contests also worsen tensions between the supporters of the winning and the losing candidates and heavily undermine the legitimacy of democratic systems. However, under certain circumstances, ‘persistent and sustained public disaffection with electoral malpractices, coupled with discontent with the broader political system, have the capacity to mobilize significant reforms to the electoral process’ (p.187). Norris concludes that ‘in certain exceptional cases, mass discontent can be one of the catalysts leading to revolutionary regime transitions’ (p.187).

The major strength of this book is its systematic organizational structure and coherence of argument. The chapters are systematically linked, with each chapter generating new questions which are addressed in the succeeding chapters. The book clearly succeeds in answering why electoral integrity matters and what happens when it is undermined. One minor point, however, is that the book does not give much attention to the role played by civil society organizations in strengthening electoral integrity. I would have liked a specific chapter on this. Nevertheless, the book is theoretically sophisticated and provides a brilliant comparative account of the relationship between electoral integrity and democracy around the world. The book will be immensely useful to students and scholars of political science and comparative political sociology.


@ Sarbeswar Sahoo (2015) Why electoral integrity matters, by Pippa Norris, Democratization, 22:6, 1158-1159