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The Observer Effect in International Politics: Evidence from a Natural Experiment

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 June 2011

Susan D. Hyde
Yale University,
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By pressuring governments to hold democratic elections and by becoming directly involved in the electoral process through technical assistance and funding or as election monitors, international actors now play a visible role in domestic elections and other democratic processes throughout the developing world. Although scholars have documented several macrolevel relationships between international-level variables and movement toward democracy, there has been little attention paid to the microlevel effects of international involvement in the democratization process. This article examines the effects of international election observation as a prominent form of international involvement in domestic elections and exploits a natural experiment in order to test whether international observers reduce election fraud. Using data from the 2003 presidential elections in Armenia, the article demonstrates that although observers may not eliminate election fraud, they can reduce election-day fraud at the polling stations they visit. The unusual advantage of experiment-like conditions for this study offers unique causal evidence that international actors can have direct, measurable effects on the level of election-day fraud and, by extension, on the democratization process.

Research Article
Copyright © Trustees of Princeton University 2007

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1 For examples of this literature, see Drake, Paul W. ”The International Causes of Democratization, 1974–1990,” in Drake, Paul and McCubbins, Matthew, eds., The Origins of Liberty: Political and Economic Liberalization in the Modern World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998Google Scholar); Gleditsch, Kristian S., All International Politics Is Local: The Diffusion of Conflict, Integration, and Democratiza tion (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002CrossRefGoogle Scholar); Gleditsch, Kristian S. and Ward, Michael D., ”Diffusion and the International Context of Democratization,” International Organization 60 (October 2006CrossRefGoogle Scholar); Levitsky, Steven and Way, Lucan, ”International Linkage and Democratization,” Journal of Democracy 16 (July 2005CrossRefGoogle Scholar); Pevehouse, Jon C., ”Democracy from the Outside-In? International Orga nizations and Democratization,” International Organization 56 (August 2002CrossRefGoogle Scholar); idem, Democracyfrom Above? Regional Organizations and Democratization (Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 2005Google Scholar); Schmitter, Philippe C., ”The Influence of the International Context upon the Choice of National Institutions and Policies in Neo-Democracies,” in Whitehead, Laurence, ed., The International Dimensions ofDemocratization: Europe and theAmericas (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996Google Scholar); Whitehead, Laurence, ed., The International Dimensions ofDemocratization: Europe and the Americas (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996Google Scholar). For work specifically addressing international influences on elections, see Chand, Vikram K., ”Democratisation from the Outside In: NGO and International Efforts to Promote Open Elections,” Third World Quarterly 18 (September 1997CrossRefGoogle Scholar); Elklit, Jorgen and Svensson, Palle, ”What Makes Elections Free and Fair?” Journalof Democracy 8 (July 1997Google Scholar); Laakso, Liisa, ”The Politics of International Election Observation: The Case of Zimbabwe in 2000,” Journal of Modern African Studies 40 (September 2002CrossRefGoogle Scholar).

2 Gleditsch and Ward (fn. 1).

3 Author's calculations. Evidence of the trend is presented in Bjornlund, Eric C., BeyondFree and Fair: Monitoring Elections and Building Democracy (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2004Google Scholar).

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18 The statement is made based on the reading of numerous international observer reports citing firsthand evidence of election fraud.

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20 Bremmer, Ian and Welt, Cory, ”Armenia's New Autocrats,” Journal of Democracy 8 (July 1997), 78Google Scholar.

21 Ibid.

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23 Bremmer and Welt (fn. 20).

24 OSCE/ODIHR, Final Report on Presidential Elections in Armenia, 19 February and 5 March 2003 (Warsaw: Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, 2003Google Scholar).

25 Armenian politics are characterized by violence, which overshadowed the 2003 elections. Most notably, in 1999, the parliament was attacked by gunmen, and eight prominent politicians were assassinated. The 2003 presidential elections were the first to be held after the attack.

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11 For examples of natural experiments, see Snow, John, On the Mode of Communication ofCholera (London: Churchill, 1849Google Scholar); and Galiani, Sebastian and Schargrodsky, Ernesto, ”Property Rights for the Poor: Effects of Land Titling” (Manuscript, March 16, 2006Google Scholar).

28 Thad Dunning, ”Improving Causal Inference: Strengths and Limitations of Natural Experiments” (Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Washington, D.C., August 31-September 4,2005).

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30 Gerber, Alan S., Green, Donald P., and Kaplan, Edward H., ”The Illusion of Learning from Observational Research,” Working Paper (New Haven: Institution for Social and Policy Studies, Yale University, 2002Google Scholar).

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32 Economist, ”Democracy, It's Wonderful,” February 22,2003.

33 Government-reported election results were made available online at by the Central Election Commission of Armenia.

34 Even if this information were inaccurately communicated to me, if observers were more likely to visit stations they believe to be problematic, as suggested by one reviewer, then this would dampen an observed effect of observers on fraud. For the reasons cited, however, this is an unlikely scenario.

35 Carothers (fn. 4); Geisler, Gisela, ”Fair? What Has Fairness Got to Do with It? Vagaries of Election Observations and Democratic Standards,” Journal of Modern African Studies 31 (December 1993CrossRefGoogle Scholar).

36 The same tests for the other candidates are available upon request. They do not change the conclusions drawn from these results.

37 Outside of the Yerevan region (where polling stations were equally likely to be visited in both rounds) polling stations that were visited in round 1 were twice as likely to be visited again in round 2.

38 Additional tests compare vote share for all candidates and show that the only candidate to perform better in unmonitored polling stations was Sargsian, who received only 0.04 percent more of the vote in unmonitored polling stations.

39 Demirchian vote share is used to make the comparison clearer. If there were systematic biases in the polling stations monitored in round 2, they should show as a statistically significant difference between these two groups. Comparisons using round 1 Kocharian vote share are available from the author, but for reasons that are likely related to polling-station accessibility, round 1-monitored polling stations are more likely to be monitored in round 2, thus making it unlikely that observed round 1 Kocharian vote share would be statistically independent of round 2 monitoring.

40 1 am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for suggesting this be included as an alternative explana-tion.

41 In thefirstround, observers visited 42 percent of polling stations. The 5.8 percent average reduction in Kocharian vote share, reflected nationally, was 2.44 percent (aggregate observer effect = 42% * 5.8%).

42 Olken (fn. 26).

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