ELMO Creates New Tools for Building Democracy

Carter Center election observers with voters during the November 2013 presidential election in Tunisia

When the Tunisian people overthrew President Zine Ben Ali in January 2011, hopes were high for the prospect of democracy in their country. As the birthplace of the “Arab Spring,” many around the world were watching to see whether the seeds of democracy would be planted in Tunisia, especially the people of Egypt, Libya, Syria, and others in the region living under authoritarian rule. Four years later, the situation for many in the region is dire. Yet, having held four peaceful elections since October 2011, Tunisia continues to inspire hope. The Carter Center has observed each of the elections and is developing new tools to strengthen election observation and the many institutions and processes involved in holding elections that genuinely reflect the will of the people. 

Election-Monitoring Policy and Practice

There is wide agreement in the international community that elections expressing the will of the people are a hallmark of a strong democracy. For countries such as Tunisia, which is transitioning from an authoritarian to democratic political system, truly democratic elections can seem like a far-off goal. This has led to the current norm of governments in transitioning countries asking international nongovernmental and intergovernmental organizations to observe and assess elections. The Carter Center is often one of the first NGOs to get that call. The Center’s Democracy Program, which has observed 100 elections in 38 different countries, is at the forefront of election-monitoring policy and practice. On the policy side, the Democracy Program partnered with the U.N. Electoral Assistance Division and the National Democratic Institute to draft the Declaration of Principles for International Observation. The declaration, which has been endorsed by more than 40 international organizations, created clear guidelines for election observation.

ELMO allows users to:

Collect/submit data from the field using most wireless devices and SMS.

Design standard and customized questionnaires for election observations.

Quickly create custom reports, charts, and graphs from the data it stores.

Customize the language for the ELMO interface, questionnaires, etc. 

On the practice side, The Carter Center has created ELMO, software leading the field in data collection and election analysis (see box). Carter Center observers first used ELMO in Liberia’s 2011 general election, eliminating the process of collecting data on handwritten forms. Prior to ELMO, Carter Center staff would spend more than 20 hours manually inputting the content from these forms into databases for analysis. Now, observers collect the answers electronically and transmit them via the Internet, wireless technology, or SMS in real time. Not only does this real-time data transmission mean faster analysis for The Carter Center’s preliminary report on an election, it also means no more all-nighters for staff trying to input data. This is one of the more important benefits of ELMO for Connie Moon Sehat, associate director of The Carter Center’s Democracy Program: “When I hear the potential for some of our staff not to spend all night up trying to figure out how to collate all the data, I’m really grateful to be part of [the ELMO] project.”

What does ELMO’s greater efficiency look like in election monitoring on the ground? In Tunisia, election observers for the landmark November 2014 presidential election were able to visit approximately 100 more polling stations than they did in the October 2011Constituent Assembly election. Observers also were able to collect over 150 more questionnaires in 2014 than in 2011. The real-time transmission of data on election day allowed staff to draft the report on the preliminary findings one day after the election. In addition, ELMO allows staff to export data into statistical and other software for more complex analyses in the future, creating new opportunities for scholars interested in using election-monitoring data in their research.

Better Data Analysis and New Collaborations

In addition to ELMO’s data-analysis capabilities, scholars also are interested in the methodology of data collection. In particular, how well are election-observation missions measuring the quality of an election? To address this question, The Carter Center launched the Election Obligations and Standards Database, which has brought together data from nearly 200 sources of international law and accepted practices related to elections and human rights. Staff use these laws as the standard by which they assess elections and the basis for the questions they ask during the election cycle. The database makes this process easier by collecting these standards in one place, thereby improving the framework within which electoral quality can be assessed. ELMO also improves the quality of monitoring with its electronic data submission. By removing the need to input data manually from written questionnaires, there are fewer opportunities for input errors. In addition, ELMO makes data analysis more efficient by providing structured data that allow experts to see real-time data at the polling station, regional, or national level, and to compare one polling station or region to another.

ELMO Initiative Graduate Fellowship

Grant BucklesELMO and other advances in election-monitoring data collection have paved the way for increased collaboration between practitioners and scholars interested in analyzing the data. To encourage and facilitate this collaboration, The Carter Center’s Democracy Program, IDN, and the Laney Graduate School created the new ELMO Initiative Graduate Fellowship. The goal of the fellowship is to serve as a focal point for the ongoing collaboration between Emory faculty members and advanced graduate students researching elections and democracy, and Carter Center experts on election monitoring and standards.

Grant Buckles, a doctoral student in political science, has been named as the 2015–2016 ELMO Initiative Fellow. He specializes in the study of elections, political parties, and political mobilization in the developing world. While at Emory, Buckles has conducted field research on elections in South Africa and has been an instructor and teaching assistant for classes on political mobilization in hybrid regimes, comparative politics, and research methods. For the new fellowship, Buckles will be a resource on the ELMO tool for the Emory community; will coordinate a speaker/discussion series exploring research on assessing and measuring election quality; and will participate in sessions on the methodological and technological design of election-monitoring tools and data.

Beyond Elections

Even with improved monitoring tools and data, how much can elections tell us about the quality of a country’s democracy? As The Carter Center’s Democracy Program well knows, there is much more to democracy than elections. For this reason, their election-observation missions begin long before election day. In Tunisia, Carter Center staff arrived just six months after the January 2011 revolution. This allowed them to build rapport and gain a deeper understanding of the context ahead of the October election. For the October, November, and December 2014 elections, staff arrived in June to begin assessing the political context. In addition to their work on the day of the election, staff assess the relevant legal framework, voter registration, the environment for candidacy and campaigning, and several other indicators that measure the quality of a country’s rights and culture of political participation. During the actual election, monitors observe voting operations and whether the media operate independently, and after the election they assess vote counting and dispute resolution. These assessments lead to a final report evaluating the many aspects of the election cycle.

For Tunisia’s historic 2014 elections, The Carter Center has released preliminary findings that speak to the progress the country has made in its transition to democracy and the importance of improving the election process for the future of its transition. Going forward, Carter Center staff recommended improvements in voter education by both the government and civil-society organizations before and during the election. There were other recommendations to improve the election process but not as many as expected given that the 2014 legislative and presidential elections were the first of their kind since the 2011 revolution. Carter Center CEO Ambassador (Ret.) Mary Ann Peters, who traveled to Tunis to observe the historic first round of the presidential elections in November, commended the Tunisian leaders and people for a peaceful, well-run election. Many in the international community agree with Peters, who notes that Tunisians “have renewed our faith that it is possible to shed a legacy of dictatorship and hold a vibrant democratic election when citizens and all political stakeholders work together.”

To learn more about ELMO, click here.


Top: Carter Center election observers with voters during the November 2013 presidential election in Tunisia

Bottom: Emory PhD student Grant Buckles

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