Since the end of the Cold War, international election monitoring has been widely practiced by organizations all over the world. By directly observing the electoral process and evaluating the outcomes, it pressures governments to hold democratic elections. Studies have shown that election monitoring missions can play a positive role in facilitating democracy by deterring fraud, increasing confidence in the electoral process, and serving as third-party mediators (Bjornlund, 2004; Hyde, 2007). Monitors are able to effectively prevent election malpractices such as stuffing the ballot boxes and electoral violence (Hyde, 2007; Daxecker, 2012) on the election-days. However, there is another unnoticeable trend that might undermine the effectiveness of international monitoring, that is, the incumbents may strategically adapt their tactics by shifting away from overt election-day cheating to subtle manipulation, which is less likely to be observed and criticized (Daxecker, 2012) and which might be more harmful for the governance (Simper and Donno, 2012). International election monitoring, a widely accepted tool for democracy promotion, is now facing new challenges.

Not many economists have studied the issue on international election monitoring and manipulation, but it has attracted significant attention from political scientists, among whom there is a growing body of literature in an endeavor to measure or explain the effects of international monitoring.

A large volume of theories focuses on manipulation as a way to win elections. Elections generate public information that affects how the incumbent interacts with other elites and citizens (Little, 2012b), during which manipulation is considered as a hidden action to distort public information (Kuhn, 2012) and reports from international monitors of good reputation can help render election results credible (Magaloni, 2009; Ferson, 2011).

Other theories argue that international benefits such as international investment, foreign aid, preferential trade agreements and military support give electoral autocrats the incentive to invite international observers and manipulate elections to minimize international criticism (Beaulieu and Hyde, 2009; Hyde, 2011). Economic and political stability, transparency, and democratic political institutions are examples of valued and rewarded state-level characteristics.  For countries that are not perceived to possess the characteristic have an increased incentive to modify their behavior in order to gain more international benefits and to signal their commitment to skeptical or indifferent audiences (Hyde, 2011b).

Most of the existing theories adopt the signaling (Hyde, 2011b), decision-theoretic (Lehoucq, 2003; Fearon, 2011) or game-theoretic approach (Little, 2012b), in which inviting monitors are seen as a signal of a government’s commitment of democracy, and the incumbents face the tradeoffs between increasing their probability of winning elections and the chance that they will be captured for committing fraud and the associated decrease in legitimacy, credibility, or aid, so they strategically achieve an equilibrium in which the marginal cost of manipulation equals the expected marginal benefits of international support or winning the election. However, none of the models consider the more general equilibrium in combination of the short-run objective of election victory and long-run objective of development (such as gaining international benefits), or give out a benchmark that the international monitoring can be beneficial or harmful.

Regarding the empirical research, a lot works have been done to show the association between international monitoring, election manipulation and government outcomes, but few directly test the casual relationship. One possible reason is that any cross-national study attempting to examine the domestic effects of international observers would be plagued by endogeneity problems. At the aggregate level it is difficult to distinguish between an election that is clean because of the presence of international observers and an election that would have been clean regardless of their presence. One may use counterfactuals to make a persuasive argument, but demonstrating causality using cross-national evidence would be nearly impossible.

Nevertheless, there are still a handful of papers testing the casual effects of international monitoring on manipulation and a variety of other governance outcomes. For example, Hyde (2010) presented the first field-experimental study in international election monitoring, in which the international observers were randomly assigned in the 2004 Indonesia presidential election. By examining the micro level electoral data, she found that incumbent presidential candidate performed better in internationally-monitored villages and the presence of observers had a measurable effect on the votes cast. Simpser and Donno (2012) tested the effects of high-quality monitoring on governance, in which they instrumented for election monitoring by identifying sources of variation in the likelihood of monitoring. They used regional rate of high-quality election monitoring as IV, because changes in the operation of monitoring organizations are likely to affect the probability of monitoring in the region where the organization specializes, but unlikely to affect governance directly or via other channels. Both of the examples provide evidence of the casual relationship, but since they implicitly rely on the assumption that politicians manipulate the election in order to win more votes, they thus neglect other possible channels through which the international election monitoring can impact the governance.


Beaulieu, Emily, and Susan Hyde. 2009. “In the Shadow of Democracy Promotion : Strategic Manipulation, International Observers, and Election Boycotts.” Comparative Political Studies, 42: 392-415.

Bhirnlund, Eric. 2004. Beyond Free and Fair: Monitoring Elections and Building Democracy. Washington DC and Baltimore, MD: Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Johns Hopkins University Press.

Daxecker, Ursula. 2012. “All Quiet on Election Day? International Election Observation and Incentives for Violent Manipulation in African Elections.” Journal of Peace Research, forthcoming.

Fearon, James. 2011. “Self-Enforcing Democracy.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 126: 1661-1708.

Hyde, Susan. 2007. “The observer Effect in International Politics: Evidence from a Natural Experiment.” World Politics, 60 (1): 37-63.

Hyde, Susan, and Angela O’Mahony. 2010. “International Scrutiny and Pre-electoral Fiscal Manipulation in Developing Countries.” The Journal of Politics, 72 (3): 690-704.

Hyde, Susan. 2011. “Catch Us if You Can: Election Monitoring and International Norm Creation.”American Journal of Political Science, 55 (2): 201-462.

Hyde, Susan. 2011. The Pseudo-Democrat’s Dilemma: Why Election Observation Became an International Norm. Cornell University Press.

Hyde, Susan. 2012. “Does Information Facilitate Self-Enforcing Democracy? The Role of International Election Monitoring.” Working paper.

Lehoucq, Fabrice. 2003. “Electoral Fraud: Causes, Types, and Consequences.” Annual Review of Political Science, 6: 233-256.

Kelley, Judith. 2008. “Assessing the Complex Evolution of Norms: The Rise of International Election Monitoring.” International Organization, 62: 221-255.

Kelley, Judith. 2012. Monitoring Democracy: When International Election Observation Works, and Why It Often Fails. Princeton University Press.

Kuhn, Patrick. 2012. “To Protest or Not: The Election Losers’ Dilemma.” Manuscript.

Little, Andrew. 2012. “Elections, Fraud, and Election Monitoring in the Shadow of Revolution.” Quarterly Journal of Political Science, 7: 249-283.

Little, Andrew. 2012. “Fraud and Monitoring in Noncompetitive Elections”. Working Paper.

Little, Daniel. 2011. Varieties of Social Explanation. Westview Press.

Magaloni, Beatriz. 2009. “The Game of Electoral Fraud and the Ousting of Authoritarian Rule.” American Journal of Political Science, 54(3): 751-765.

Shleifer, Andrei, 2002. “The Memu of Manipulation.” Journal of Democracy, 13: 36-50.

Simpser, Alberto, and Daniela Donno. 2012. “Can International Election Monitoring Harm Governance?” The Journal of Politics, 74 (2): 501-513.