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Political Science in Europe

Building Better Electoral Management? EMB Institutional Design, EMB Autonomy and Election Integrity

Comparative Politics
Carolien van Ham
Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen
Carolien van Ham
Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen
Holly Ann Garnett
McGill University

Problems with election fraud and election integrity are of increasing concern in both established and transitional democracies (Lehoucq, 2003; Birch, 2011, Alvarez et al., 2008, 2012; Norris, 2014, 2015). In many transitional democracies, independent Electoral Management Bodies (EMBs) have been championed as a key institutional reform measure to successfully strengthen election integrity, and as a result independent EMBs are now the most common institutional model for electoral management in the world (IDEA, 2006, 2014; Lopez-Pintor, 2000). In established democracies as well, the role of electoral management in safeguarding election integrity and promoting citizens’ trust in elections is a topic of increasing concern. The 2000 and recent 2016 presidential elections in the United States sparked a debate on the need for improved electoral management and restoring citizen trust in electoral processes (Alvarez et al., 2008; Hall, 2012; Bowler et al., 2015; Norris and Garnett, 2015), and electoral management failures in Britain and Ireland have drawn increasing attention too (James, 2013, 2014ab; Clark, 2015, Farrell, 2015, Reidy 2015).

Yet, despite the intuitively appealing assumption that independent electoral management bodies will be better at their task of organizing and monitoring elections in an impartial manner, empirical evidence is mixed. While regional studies have found a positive impact of independent EMBs on election integrity in Latin America and Africa (Hartlyn et al., 2008; Fall et al., 2012; Hamberg and Erlich, 2013), global comparative studies appear to show that EMB institutional design is either negatively, or only very weakly related to election integrity (Birch, 2011; Birch and van Ham, 2016, Norris 2015). Much of these conflicting findings might be driven by the lack of detailed data on EMB institutional design, with most studies using rudimentary classifications of ‘independent’, ‘governmental’ and ‘mixed’ EMB designs (IDEA 2006, 2014), without addressing more specific organizational differences such as appointment procedures, budgetary controls, and formal competences, that might shape de facto EMB independence and election integrity.

In order to resolve these conflicting findings, this paper aims to address three gaps in existing research: (a) limited availability of comparative data on EMB institutional design, (b) limited understanding of the consequences of EMB institutional design for de facto EMB independence, and (c) limited understanding of the consequences of EMB institutional design for EMB performance and wider outcomes of election integrity, credibility and legitimacy.

The paper presents the results of a detailed survey of the organisational structure of over 50 electoral management bodies around the world collected in 2016 and 2017, and develops a new typology of EMB institutional structure based on these data. It subsequently demonstrates the utility of this new typology by comparing it to existing accounts of EMB institutional design, and subsequently investigating how EMB institutional design affects de facto EMB independence and election integrity.
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