Skip to main content

Lessons for the UK in electoral integrity. By Pippa Norris

Guest contributor

By Pippa Norris: Harvard University and the University of Sydney

Issues about the integrity of UK elections have become a major concern in the run-up to the general election. In recent contests, questions have arisen over insecure postal ballots, proxy voting, and fraudulent practices. The May 7th 2015 UK general election will provide a further test case following warnings by the Electoral Commission of ‘ethnic kinship’ voting in British Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, a practice thought to make these areas particularly vulnerable to electoral fraud.

Concern about the fairness of elections is not simply a matter confined to malcontents among the chattering classes; instead public disaffection with elections is linked with broader feelings about democracy. Thus the second wave of the 2015 BES panel survey (fielded in May-June 2014) demonstrates that feelings that the 2015 British general elections are likely to be unfair are closely linked with dissatisfaction with the overall performance of British democracy. The figure below demonstrates the average score in answer to the question: “Thinking of the general election for the Westminster Parliament that will take place in May 2015, how fairly do you expect it to be conducted?” where 1 = Expect 2015 election to be conducted fairly, and 5 = Expect 2015 election to be conducted unfairly, according to how satisfied the respondent feels about UK democracy. This is not surprising; most citizens find it difficult to assess many aspects of how political institutions work, such as the effectiveness of parliament or the fairness of the courts. But elections remain the main opportunity for most people to connect directly with their leaders. If unhappy with the fairness of elections (for whatever reasons) these judgments are likely to colour their broader views about British democracy. And vice versa.


Fig 1 Satisfaction with UK democracy

Source: Wave 2 of the 2014-2017 British Election Study Internet Panel (N = 6041.).


The UK is not alone in these concerns. The issue is perhaps best exemplified by partisan divisions in the United States over Republican allegations of voter fraud (impersonation) and Democratic claims of voter suppression. But the Florida disease has become contagious in other Anglo-American democracies, generating controversies about the Fair Elections Act in Canada and lost ballot boxes in Australia. Reforms to the process of electoral administration are also currently under debate in Ireland.

The consequences of irregularities are even more serious elsewhere in the world. The recent six week postponement of Nigeria’s presidential election, and delays in distributing voter ID cards, have triggered protests and violence.

Elsewhere contentious elections have sparked massive street protests in Cambodia, a military coup d’état in Thailand, bloody conflict in 2007 in Kenya, and the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine.

But how do we know when complaints about electoral malpractices reflect genuine flaws and failures, and when they are false claims stoked by sore losers? When do new types of ‘convenience’ voting in Britain lead to security flaws and fraudulent practices? How will the UK general election stack up against contests in other Western democracies – and around the world?


The Electoral Integrity Project

To assess these issues, the Electoral Integrity Project based at Harvard and Sydney Universities has just released a new report and dataset for The Year in Elections 2014.

Expert assessments evaluate the state of the world’s elections each year. The third release of the Perceptions of Electoral Integrity (PEI) data-set covers 127 national parliamentary and presidential contests held from 1 July 2012 to 31 December 2014 in 107 countries worldwide. More elections will be evaluated as they are held in future years. The UK will be added to the sample in 2015 so we can better understand the UK’s electoral fairness in comparative perspective.

Evidence is gathered from a global survey of 1,429 domestic and international election experts (with a response rate of 29%). Immediately after each contest, the quality of each election is evaluated based on 49 indicators. Responses are clustered into eleven stages occurring throughout the electoral cycle and then summed to construct an overall 100-point expert Perception of Electoral Integrity (PEI) index and ranking.

The world map of electoral integrity identifies the best and worst elections around the globe during 2014.


The global map of electoral integrity, 2012-2014

Fig 2 Electoral Integrity worldwide

Source: Electoral Integrity Project. 2015.  The expert survey of Perceptions of Electoral Integrity, Release 3 (PEI-3). A dynamic version of the map and details about the categories are available online.


Failed elections

  • During 2014, the five worst elections worldwide were in Egypt, Mozambique, Afghanistan, Bahrain and Syria (respectively), all of which failed to meet international standards.
  • In the second round of the Afghanistan presidential election on 5th April 2014, for example, a bitter dispute about alleged fraud “on an industrial scale”, resolved only by an eventual UN/US brokered power-sharing arrangement,   undermined confidence in the process and outcome.
  • In Syria, the presidential election on 3rd June 2014 was attempted in the midst of a bloody civil war and deep humanitarian crisis where polling did not take place in rebel areas and an estimated 9 million Syrians have fled their homes.

Contests meeting international standards

  • By contrast, during 2014, the five best elections around the globe were in Lithuania (ranked 1st), Costa Rica, Sweden, Slovenia and Uruguay (respectively).

US Congressional elections

  • Compared with 127 contests covered in PEI-3 since 2012, it is striking that in the United States, the 2012 presidential election (ranked 42nd) and the 2014 Congressional elections (ranked 48th) scored lowest among all Western democracies.
  • Experts expressed concern about US electoral laws and voter registration procedures, both areas of heated partisan debate, as well as partisan gerrymandering of district boundaries and the deregulation of campaign finance. As a result, the US mid-term contests last year were ranked as similar in quality to elections in Colombia and Bulgaria.

What drives electoral integrity?

  • Electoral integrity is generally strengthened by three factors; democracy, development, and power‐sharing constitutions. Longer experience over successive contests usually consolidates democratic practices, deepens civic cultures, and builds the capacity of professional electoral management bodies. Economic development provides the resources and technical capacity for professional electoral administration. Power‐sharing institutions, such as the free press and independent parliaments, serve as watch-dogs curbing malpractices.
  • Systematic cross-national research has established these general patterns but still several important exceptions can be observed.
  • States in Africa and the Middle East usually face the greatest risks of failed elections, as shown by Mauritania, Iraq, Egypt and Bahrain. But there are clear exceptions within these regions, notably the successful Tunisianpresidential and legislative elections, and fairly well‐rated contests in South Africa.
  • The most serious risks using arise during the electoral cycle from disparities in political finance and media coverage during the campaign. These stages are assessed by experts as far more widespread problems than malpractices occurring on election‐day or its aftermath, such as ballot stuffing or fraud.


Fig 3 problems in electoral cycle

Note: Each stage in the electoral cycle was evaluated using 100-point scales.
Source: Electoral Integrity Project. 2015.  The expert survey of Perceptions of Electoral Integrity, Release 3 (PEI-3).

More details can be found from new books by Pippa Norris on Why Electoral Integrity Matters and Why Elections Fail, bothfrom Cambridge University Press, New York.

Further information, the complete PEI_3 dataset, a YouTube video presentation, and a copy of the full report can all be downloaded from


Pippa Norris is Laureate Research Fellow and Professor of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics at Harvard University, and Director of the Electoral Integrity Project.