Global Measures of Electoral Credibility: Voter Participation and Political Finance

Credible elections are integral to democracy. As preeminent political scientist Charles E. Lindblom once noted, a key difference between democracy and authoritarianism is that “in democratic regimes citizens choose their top policy makers in genuine elections.”

In other words, a credible poll reflects the will of the people, who accept the election as a vehicle to include their voices in the political process. How do we then measure electoral credibility? Researchers study many aspects of the electoral process to determine the integrity, or credibility, of the outcome. For example, the Electoral Integrity Project looks at 49 variables, and among these are voter turnout and political finance. A high level of voter turnout has traditionally been viewed as a strong indicator of electoral credibility, yet this ignores other critical factors. Examining political finance offers a more detailed picture, but is still highly variable and subject to other intervening variables. Indeed, measuring electoral credibility is a nuanced and complex challenge.

Voter Participation

Since the start of the “Third Wave,” an era of democratic transitions that began in the 1970s, democracy practitioners have looked to voter participation as a key signifier of democracy. According to this view, robust voter turnout on Election Day is a sign of high electoral credibility. Most observer groups regard low voter turnout, on the other hand, as a challenge to the credibility of elections and a barrier for democracy.

Two relevant examples of consistently low voter turnout are Guatemala and the United States.

With some of the lowest recorded levels of turnout in the world, Guatemala is ranked 155 on International IDEA’s list of average voter turnout in 170 countries between 1945 and 2014. Similarly, compared to other established democracies where voting is voluntary, U.S. turnout rates have also lagged behind. According to International IDEA, in legislative elections U.S. voter turnout has averaged at about 48 percent of the voting age population. This is 15 percent lower than the global average of 63 percent, and well below countries like Italy (89%), Iceland (88%), Belgium (85%), Australia (84%), Netherlands (82%) and Turkey (75%).

For some observers, low turnout in the United States and Guatemala highlights challenges in both countries’ democratic processes. In Guatemala, women, the poor and indigenous groups have historically been marginalized by political parties and election administrators, contributing to low turnout on Election Day. In the United States, the media and other observers of the political process argue over the challenges that might be influencing Election Day turnout, such as electoral competitiveness, restrictive voter identification laws, and the effects of some other electoral policies.  However, given the array of factors potentially influencing turnout in the United States – and the disagreements over them – scholars are increasingly concluding that low turnout may not be a sufficiently expansive indicator to say much about the health of the political process.

High turnout can also be somewhat meaningless in contexts with extraordinary political stakes. This has been the case in countries emerging from civil and political conflicts, where citizens may go through great lengths to cast their votes, whether it is for their very first time, or to influence an entirely new governing arrangement. Take Afghanistan’s very recent presidential election held this year – a contest that could lead to the first democratic transfer of power in the country’s history.

In this election, Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission reported an extremely high turnout during both rounds of the contest. Yet high turnout here may reveal very little about credibility in a war-torn nation with deep political divides. Indeed, presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah’s rejection of the electoral results, his accusations of electoral fraud, and the rocky audit of all votes cast may suggest the narrow implications of voter turnout in environments like Afghanistan.

Considering these limitations, it is important to consider other factors when looking for electoral credibility. Differences in political influence and campaign resources, for example, can shape electoral outcomes before any voters even cast a ballot.

Political Spending

Money significantly affects the competitiveness of elections around the world, and arguably, the credibility of electoral outcomes. As a result, election observer groups like the Carter Center and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) routinely report on elections by examining the role money plays in political campaigns. 

The vast campaign war chests in the U.S. (for example, nearly $4 billion was spent by candidates in the 2012 congressional elections) have garnered worldwide attention of late and sparked global comparisons in the media. It is challenging, however, to compare spending across diverse country contexts, given dramatic differences in population, costs, and the number of seats being contested. Instead, we can contribute more to the debate about electoral credibility by examining the regulatory context, and the way political spending is managed.

While some countries seek to limit political spending, the U.S. experience has been shaped overwhelmingly by values of political liberty, rather than equality. In the United States, recent court decisions overturning campaign finance laws reflect the opinion that political spending is a form of speech, and therefore cannot be limited. In 2008, Barack Obama became the first major presidential candidate to forgo public financing precisely because it would impose a cap on his campaign’s total spending (both Obama and Hillary Clinton also rejected public funds in the primaries). In addition, there is no direct cap on spending by candidates or on independent expenditures. These regulatory aspects have shaped an unprecedented funding environment in the U.S.

Spending limits can provide opportunities to candidates who otherwise would be marginalized from the political arena. They can also simultaneously curb the undue influence of wealthy benefactors and corporate interests, controversial forces in politics. Despite their potential to increase equality, protect the individual vote, and lessen the risk of corruption, almost half the world lacks these limits. Indeed, a slight majority (55%) of the 180 countries in International IDEA’s political finance database do not have legally mandated spending limits for candidates, including the United States, in contrast to neighbors Canada and Mexico. Australia abolished its limits in 1980, partly due to the difficulties it faced in enforcing them. An even larger share of countries, nearly two-thirds, have no spending limits in place for political parties at all.

While spending limits can help reduce the disproportionate influence of huge sums of money on politics, their existence does not guarantee high levels of participation and more credible electoral processes. In general, spending limits can be challenging to enforce, and in some countries such regulations may lead candidates and parties to seek alternative, unregulated avenues of spending.

Poorly designed spending limits may also do more harm than good, sometimes instilling a lack of respect for regulations and the bodies charged with enforcing them. In Lebanon, candidates have a fixed spending limit of approximately $100,000 (USD). An additional, variable amount is added to that figure for each candidate based on the number of constituents in the candidate’s electoral district. Expenditures are based on the candidate’s individual spending, as well as spending by third parties. The combined limit is therefore considered to be unrealistically low. As a result, most candidates exceed the limit, whether knowingly or not. For example, media outlets reported during the 2009 parliamentary elections that politicians – many of whom were wealthy Lebanese businessmen – purchased enough airfare for diaspora members  (who are permitted to vote if they return to their constituency) to travel to Lebanon during the election. This airfare alone most likely exceeded some candidates’ spending limits.

In the United States, wealthy individuals are also raising the bar on spending by funding political communications. When developed absent direct communication with a party or candidate, this independent expenditure is only subject to disclosure, not spending limits. As noted above, Australia has even fewer limits on expenditures, with no spending limits in place, although a chorus of voices in both countries are advocating for increased regulation.

A few countries have dealt with third-party expenditures by implementing stricter regulation. For example, the Representation of the People Act of 1983 introduced third party spending limits in the United Kingdom (UK). Spending by non-party campaigners in the 2015 general elections will be subject to limits, though some aspects of third party spending controls are currently under reform. The UK also differs from the U.S. by banning paid political broadcasts. In the 2012 U.S. presidential election, two-thirds of expenditure was dedicated to media and almost 80 percent of media expenditure was categorized as unspecified media buys. Some experts deem such a ban more effective in practice than spending limits, as media, specifically political broadcasting, constitutes a significant share of political spending in many countries.

As with voter turnout, the appropriate remedy to challenges of political spending may differ by country. High levels of spending have the potential to undermine public confidence in the political process and weaken the credibility of an election. But, reducing analyses of political finance and voter turnout to numbers may less meaningfully suggest how or why electoral problems exist and can often present an opaque picture of electoral credibility. Finding the answers to these questions requires an in-depth understanding of political environments and the context-specific factors that shape elections.

While variables like voter turnout and political finance are useful, electoral credibility is ultimately a nuanced concept that requires consideration of the full context of an election.

*This article initially appeared in Capitol Ideas, Sept/Oct 2014. It has been slightly modified for the purposes of this newsletter.