Populism a risk to electoral integrity: new report

8 May 2017
More than 2,700 experts surveyed by Electoral Integrity Project

The Electoral Integrity Project's annual report ranks more than 200 elections including recent U.S, Russian, and Australian polls.

A woman with an umbrella walks past French presidential election posters. Image: Lorie Shaull/Wikimedia Commons

A comprehensive survey by more than 2,700 social scientists ranks the integrity of elections globally, identifying polls beset by gerrymandered boundaries, restrictions on the free press, ballot box fraud, violence, corruption and coercion, and the abuse of money in politics.

New evidence gathered by The Electoral Integrity Project (EIP) at the University of Sydney and Harvard is published in a new report: Populist Threats to Electoral IntegrityThe Year in Elections, 2016-2017.

Comparing the quality of elections worldwide

The report compares 241 parliamentary and presidential elections in 158 countries around the world (excluding micro-states). All countries are ranked by the Perceptions of Electoral Integrity (PEI) Index. To go beyond the numbers, the report highlights illustrative case-studies in the U.S., Australia, Russia, Lithuania, the Philippines, Iceland, Gabon, the Gambia, Syria, and Iran. The report demonstrates several striking findings:

The U.S. ranks 55th worldwide in integrity, the worst performance of any Western democracy, due to problems including growing party polarisation over electoral procedures and rights. Tensions were exacerbated by President Trump’s repeated claims of massive voter fraud, before and after his entry into the White House.

  • Australia’s 2016 Federal Election ranked 28th worldwide in integrity. One in four voters surveyed by an EIP panel believe fraud is common, raising a need for measures to restore public confidence.
  • Russia’s 2016 Duma election rated 120th worldwide. The contest lacked a level playing field due to abuse of state resources and media coverage that predominantly supported Putin’s United Russia party.
  • By contrast, Lithuania and Iceland were ranked in the top dozen elections last year. Similarly several poorer societies and newer democracies, such as Ghana, Cape Verde and Benin,held elections which were relatively well rated by experts.
  • Yet many other contests in Sub-Saharan Africa, including Gabon and the Gambia, were particularly prone to conflict and instability.
  • Last year’s elections in Syria, racked by internal conflict, population displacement, and instability, were ranked among the worst in the world.

Why and how does populism threaten electoral integrity?

The new report also focuses upon growing concern that populists heighten risks of electoral malpractices, identifying three main mechanisms:

  • By damaging public trust in the electoral process, such as where supporters believe President Trump’s repeated claims, without evidence, of massive electoral fraud and vote rigging;
  • By undermining international standards of electoral integrity and engaging in illegal malpractices, through practices such as corruption, coercion, and the lack of a level playing field in the Philippines, Hungary and Turkey, as well as several specific cases violating electoral laws in Western democracies; and
  • By colluding with authoritarian interference in democratic contests abroad, including where Russian cyber-attacks seek to benefit populist candidates, such as in the US and France.

“Problems of electoral integrity are widespread around the world, and some long-established democracies are not immune from major flaws,” said Professor Pippa Norris, EIP founding director. 

“Populism heightens the risks through eroding public confidence in elections, actively violating international standards and electoral laws, and colluding with Russian allies seeking to undermine democracy.”

The Year in Elections report is drawn from a rolling survey, with responses received from 2,709 experts. The global survey monitors Perceptions of Electoral Integrity in 158 countries and 241 national parliamentary and presidential elections held between mid-2012 and 31 December 2016. Separate surveys are also run to compare states and provinces in several larger federal countries, such as Russia, Mexico, India, and the U.S.

Luke O'Neill

Media and Public Relations Adviser (Humanities and Social Sciences)
Problems of electoral integrity are widespread around the world.
Professor Pippa Norris, University of Sydney