25 Years of Election Observation



As The Carter Center marked its 100th election observation mission in 2015, the organization stands out as a leader in the field. A not-for-profit, nongovernmental organization (NGO), the Center has observed and reported on democratic and electoral processes around the world without inhibition or bias. The founder of The Carter Center, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, initiated this work based on a keen awareness of the critical importance of electoral issues—particularly of independent, impartial observation—as an integral component of the Center’s pursuit to advance democratic development, peace, and human rights across the globe.

This is an excerpt from the elections retrospective, which is available in full in English, here.

Marie Daniel (R), a Congolese woman from Kinshasa and international observer for the Carter Center, is observing the Tunisian presidential election in the Habib Thamer primary school polling station, in Slimane, in the district of Nabeul, in North-eastern Tunisia, on November 23rd, 2014.
Observing the Tunisian election in 2014 .

A brief overview of the history of The Carter Center’s election observation work over the 25 years between 1989 and 2014 reveals a gradual evolution as the Center expanded its work around the world. Simultaneously, the role of election observation grew significantly within the Center itself, as did the role the Center plays in the field internationally.

When The Carter Center considers whether to observe an election, it assesses several key criteria. If a country extends an invitation to observe, the Center evaluates the feasibility and utility of deploying a mission. It weighs a potential mission against other possible missions, given limited resources.

Election observation at The Carter Center has gone through several distinct stages. Early missions often featured high-level political delegations, and many were undertaken jointly with other organizations, most often the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. While they often included preelection delegations, most focused attention on direct observation of polling days. Early mission reports also offered few, if any, recommendations.

In the mid- to late 1990s, election observation at The Carter Center entered a new stage. Increasingly, missions began assessing elections as broad political processes comprising several phases, of which polling is just one. The timeframe for observation expanded and missions began to include the deployment of medium- and long-term observers in the weeks and months leading up to the election-day deployment of short-term observers. They established field offices with staff members who arrived significantly ahead of the election and usually remained months after polling to observe postelectoral processes. The longer these missions became, the more depth their analysis reflected. New and richer understanding also led to a number of complementary projects that preceded or followed missions.


The 2008 election in Ghana was among the first in which Carter Center observers used standardized reporting templates.
The 2008 election in Ghana was among the first in which Carter Center observers used standardized reporting templates.


By the time these first 25 years of election observation came to a close, the Center had introduced diverse methods into its work, including the use of statistical sampling, electronic reporting, and technical experts. It had undertaken numerous types of limited or targeted missions. All the while, its collaborative efforts with other international organizations working in this field and with domestic partners around the world have continued to expand.

Most recently, through the Democratic Election Standards project launched in 2006, The Carter Center has worked to build international consensus on a set of obligations against which elections should be assessed and to develop the methods through which to do so. The project has standardized the Center’s reporting tools for practical application in the field, including an online database of election obligations and standards, an election assessment manual, and data collection and analysis software. At the same time, The Carter Center and its experts have worked at the forefront of the field, conducting research, publishing in journals, and convening a number of conferences and workshops. The Center stands as a leader in the field of democracy and elections and is committed to ensuring that elections serve to build strong democratic societies that respect and protect human rights.