Election Monitors and the Unwashed Crowd

Polling Station

I’ve been told that crowdsourcing of elections isn’t a wise move. After all, what value will anyone gain from gathering a bunch of yammering “l33t-speak” texting reports from the unwashed masses? Election monitoring should only be done by trained volunteers and their results analyzed by professionals.

Last week I spent a couple days in sessions on election monitoring, with election monitoring professionals, some who have been doing this for many years. I’ll be the first to say that I didn’t know a lot about how they worked, so I listened very closely to understand just what was going on. I was surprised, very surprised, by what I heard.

As most people, I think of election monitors as those guys with a funny hat/shirt that stand to the side and watch and scribble things on a sheet of paper. That’s true, that is what they do.

However, I was surprised to learn that most of these election monitors are not well trained, give mediocre data, and some end up not just objective bystanders, but proactive enforcers of a given political party. In effect they aren’t much, if any, better than those aforementioned “unwashed masses”.

Exacerbating the issue is the fact that these election monitoring groups rarely keep good records of their monitors. Thus, when fraudulent or questionable activity comes in from a polling station, where compromised monitors are working, they aren’t tracked. In the next elections, these same people step forward and are then used again.

Finally, it doesn’t make sense to equate election monitoring with voting booth monitoring. What about everything that happens before and after elections? If a government is going to skew the elections, they’ll make all the preparations beforehand and don’t generally do much on election day; they wind up the clock and just let it tick they way they built it. By only monitoring voting stations one is basically making the case that what happens weeks/days/hours before the actual voting process is completely independent and has no influence on the elections.

Absurd. Elections are a process, not an event.

Election simulation flow

Interesting, and insane…

In the collection of data then (not the analyzing of it), why are election monitors so much more valuable than crowdsourcing from the public?

First off, there is something to be said about having someone sit at the polling station all day long. It could be argued that people just coming in to vote might see something, but someone there all day is much more likely to catch an inconsistency or fraud. (Though, it should be noted that most African voters defend their vote by also staying all day long until the local ballots are counted and announced.)

Second, election monitors are “known” and can therefore be found if a report was given that needs to be followed up on.

In a more sane and perfect world, we can see from these two points that election monitors would be useful. However, we don’t, and yet we keep seeing money get poured into this broken system. Acting as if election monitoring is some sacrosanct fortress, the only right way to make sure elections happen the right way.

A more sane person might suggest that you look at a lot of incoming data from many sources and use it all. Sure, keep some proven election monitoring practices in place, but balance that against the crowd who can provide you with alerts that might never have cropped up on your radar before. Marry that with budget tracking and cleaned census data.

I’m taking a sarcastic tone in this post, as it seems a bit beyond me that the crowdsourcing method gets pilloried when compared to election monitoring. Both are part of a greater ecosystem of data collection that should be happening. One isn’t better than the other overall, and both bring different strengths to the table. In effect, election monitoring is just pseudo-controlled crowdsourcing.

It’s time to start thinking of elections holistically, as a process and with many forms of data input and analysis.

3 Responses to “Election Monitors and the Unwashed Crowd”

  1. Hi Erik,

    I loved the article. Beautiful analysis. You are right on the money. You could also consider some alternative system whereby people could register in some way in order to send reports in to be mapped. This way their history in reporting could be monitored across elections and you might reduce intentional anonymous trolling of election processes by people more interested in throwing doubts on the process than conducting honest monitoring.