Last updated on December 17, 2013
Elections are the primary means by which voters hold those elected to office accountable.23 While elections create an accountability mechanism, there must also be accountability within an election process if it is to be genuine.24 Accountability in an election process ensures those who conduct elections do so in compliance with the election legislation and relevant procedures, and in a manner that promotes the integrity of the process.
Generally, elections are conducted by EMBs. Within EMBs it is critical that responsibilities are clearly defined, including who has authorization to take specific actions or decisions. Officials at all levels of election administration must be responsible for their actions and decisions, and must be held accountable should they fail in their duties. Disciplinary measures and penalties must be defined for such instances, including the possibility of criminal liability for serious offenses.
The principle of accountability remains the same for elections that include electronic voting and counting, but is more complicated than traditional paper-based systems in several respects. First, because the consequences of some actions taken by officials may not be visible (since they take place within a machine), it is particularly important that each action taken is properly recorded. Second, because many aspects of implementing electronic voting and counting systems require highly-specialized skills (e.g., configuration, installation and maintenance), it may be a challenge for EMBs to identify staff that can perform such tasks. Third, because of the technical nature of the process, it is common that suppliers of the technology assist the EMB and fulfill some responsibilities of the EMB.
While it is preferable for an EMB to have in-house capacity to maintain its election equipment, it might not be possible to identify staff with needed specific, technical skills. In any case, technology vendors will inevitably be involved to a certain degree in the setup, use and maintenance of the equipment they supply. However, the EMB needs to remain in control of the relationship with the vendor and ensure the relationship does not violate its own responsibility to be in charge of implementing the electoral process. Any role for the vendor must be clearly defined so the EMB remains in control of the process at all times, and remains accountable should a problem arise.
Vendors of election technology have a different set of concerns than election officials. Their primary concern is to make money by delivering their products and services according to the contract they have concluded with the EMB. Vendors may not be aware of such constraints as election deadlines or legal requirements that must be met. It is the responsibility of the election officials to ensure the process meets deadlines and legal requirements, and liaise closely with vendors to make sure these criteria are met. The procurement process also must lead to contractual requirements that include firm deadlines for delivery that correspond to the electoral calendar, including sufficient time to remedy deficiencies in vendor performance, and sufficient penalties to deter non-performance. The vendor should not be in a position to take any action affecting the functionality of the equipment without the express authorization of the EMB. Any actions taken by the vendor should be carefully monitored and recorded.
EMBs can take steps to increase their own accountability in a number of ways. They can hold regular public consultations to present information on their recent activities and answer any complaints. This is especially necessary in a situation where new technologies are implemented that may not be broadly understood by the public or electoral contestants. EMBs can also allow political parties, election observers and the media the opportunity to attend their meetings where policies are being formulated, particularly in regard to the introduction and use of new election technologies. It is also common for EMBs to publish a report following an election that considers how the election was conducted and may provide recommendations for improvements in the future.
EMBs may be held accountable by a variety of institutions. It is good practice for electronic voting and counting systems to be certified by an independent authority, before they are approved for use, to verify they meet the necessary requirements. Audits can be conducted at regular intervals to verify that the equipment in use is the same that has been certified.
In many countries, parliamentary committees play an important oversight role, holding hearings to review the effectiveness and impartiality of EMBs. In countries with electronic voting and counting, a parliament may appoint specific independent committees with technical competence to evaluate the implementation of the technologies. For example, in Belgium, Parliament appoints an independent College of Experts that has the responsibility to review the integrity of voting and counting technologies throughout the election cycle.
Accountability can also be strengthened through the conduct of audits. On Election Day, voting and counting machines should be audited in a sample of polling stations to determine whether votes have been accurately recorded by the machines. An independent body can also conduct an overall audit of the technology after Election Day to verify that each step of the election process has been properly carried out.
Political parties, the media and citizen election observers also hold EMBs accountable by monitoring their activities and bringing any violations to the attention of the public, as well as the relevant authorities through complaints and appeals procedures. In countries with electronic voting and counting, political parties and citizen observers may need to develop specific skills to detect any violations and collect the necessary evidence to file a complaint.
23 For more detailed information on this topic, please refer to the following sections in Part 2: Design Requirements; Procurement, Production and Delivery (EMB-Vendor Relations); Recruitment and Training of Personnel; Project and Risk Management, pgs. 153-161; Challenges and Recounts; Post-election Audits; Evaluation of System; and Internet Voting.
24 Merloe, P. (2008) Promoting Legal Frameworks for Elections: An NDI Guide for Developing Election Laws and Legal Commentaries, pp. 17-21.