Lessons Learned from Afghanistan’s Election Audit: International Standards to Protect Electoral Integrity
In recent years, election audits have been increasingly utilized to settle disputes over electoral results. For example, the first round of voting for Afghanistan’s 2014 presidential election took place on April 5, 2014, and the new President, Ashraf Ghani, was not announced until September 21, following an unprecedented, comprehensive election audit and an agreement between Ghani and the other top candidate, Abdullah Abdullah, to form a National Unity Government. The audit of the Afghan run-off vote prompted important conversations regarding international standards for election audits. As the international community continues to support electoral processes in developing democracies around the world, it is critical to come to consensus on standards that should be applied both to assess the need for an election audit and to conduct such an audit.
To that end, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) and Democracy International (DI), two organizations that had extensive involvement in Afghanistan’s run-off audit and several other recent audits in developing democracies, released a joint white paper that identifies best practices for election audits. On April 22, IFES and DI hosted a launch event for the white paper, entitled Election Audits: International Principles that Protect Election Integrity, which featured panelists from IFES, DI and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) discussing the 2014 Afghan election and its aftermath, important standards for election audits, and electoral reform in Afghanistan.
The audit of the Afghan election and the agreement to form a National Unity Government resulted in the first peaceful transition of power in the country’s history. Speaking on the panel, Jed Ober, DI’s Director of Programs and a co-author of the white paper, noted, “Afghans should be proud of the first peaceful transfer of power, but that does not necessarily mean it was democratic or reflected the will of the people.” Nonetheless, Ober added, “there was a broad consensus that more Afghans participated in the electoral process than ever before,” marking an enormous democratic exercise for the country. While the audit was ultimately necessary because of a breakdown in the credibility of the institutions charged with administering the electoral process, there were still important democratic building blocks put in place – such as the high rate of participation and a robust campaign period – to contribute to the further consolidation of democracy in Afghanistan. Although the election audit was a crucial step in ensuring the peaceful transfer of power, Ober argued that audits should only be used in extraordinary circumstances.
Continuing that thread, Chad Vickery, IFES Director of the Center for Applied Research and Learning and a co-author of the paper, detailed important considerations in the preparation and conduct of election audits and noted that they should ultimately be utilized as a last resort. Vickery also detailed the difference between an election audit – which is meant to investigate allegations of fraud or malpractice to determine if the electoral process or results have been manipulated or tampered – and a recount, where ballots are tallied again. Discussing the white paper’s recommendations, Vickery laid out minimum principles for electoral bodies considering an electoral audit:
- Integrity management
- Established legal framework
- Established procedural framework
- Effective training and adherence to a code of conduct
- Clear jurisdiction
- Predetermined and uniformly applied rules
- Appropriate evidentiary standards
- Right to an appeal
Looking to the Afghan run-off audit, Vickery noted how the lack of predetermined and uniformly applied rules presented serious challenges for auditors and contributed to the protracted nature of the process.
As part of the deal to form a National Unity Government, both Ghani and Abdullah pledged to institute significant reforms to the electoral system. However, according to UNDP Lead Electoral Advisor Niall McCann, over six months later it is unclear if the electoral reform commission that was to be established has been appointed or if reform recommendations can be considered in time for Afghanistan’s next parliamentary elections. McCann also discussed another major challenge to the future of Afghan elections: establishing a credible voter register. Addressing comments from the other panelists, McCann argued that we cannot say that the results of the election did not reflect the will of the people simply because of the agreement to form a National Unity Government, citing coalition building in other democracies like the United Kingdom. “Political parties and actors are entitled to decide who they partner with,” McCann averred. He also acknowledged the utility of the IFES-DI white paper for future election audits.
At the launch event, DI CEO Glenn Cowan and IFES President and CEO Bill Sweeney provided opening remarks and discussed the importance of ensuring electoral integrity. IFES Applied Research and Learning Manager Erica Shein, a co-author of the white paper, moderated the event and fielded a compelling question and answer session that featured questions from audience members who served as auditors in Afghanistan in 2014. Ultimately, IFES and DI believe that that standards and principles detailed in this white paper can help ensure that when electoral audits are needed, they can increase the credibility of the outcome and ensure free and fair elections.