By Julian Dierkes
In June 2016, Mongolians will be voting for a new parliament, the Улсын Их Хурал. Having served as an election observer in the last four national elections, I’m thinking about what activities could be undertaken now to prepare for next year’s election, specifically whether there are any projects that would need to be initiated long ahead of the election.
Overall, I would say that the 2008 (despite the riots that followed), 2009, 2012, and 2013 elections were reasonably fair and free. While many rumours of electoral fraud swirled around these elections, no concrete evidence has ever emerged. The fact that electoral fraud only makes sense on a large scale suggests to me that evidence of any such national-scale fraud would have emerged over time. Of course, election monitoring is primarily focused on what happens in polling stations, any behind-the-scenes manipulation would be difficult to capture.
Despite the overall quality of the elections, there is certainly room for improvement.
The main challenges I have observed in the past include
- lack of confidence in results and unproven allegations of fraud
- variability in the electoral system
- an increasingly active role of the media, but limited regulation, particularly regarding ownership of media outlets
- organization of collection of the results at the district level.
Here, I want to think out loud about projects that might address these challenges, especially the first, as well as the ever-present need for voter education.
My ideas would variously apply under some of the changes to electoral laws that are currently under discussion, whether that is the MPP’s apparent proposal to turn to an all first-past-the-post system with 76 single-member electoral ridings, or any other specific set-up.
If I were to propose or carry out any efforts focused on the 2016 election, I would be guided by three principles:
- Do no harm.
- Remain independent and agnostic on outcomes.
- Lay open all decisions and funding.
I am not Mongolian, I do not vote in the election, and I do not have a direct stake in its outcome. While I have personal contacts with politicians of various stripes, I don’t have any particular sympathy nor loyalty for any of the Mongolian parties. I have no financial or other stake in Mongolia and election outcomes thus have no direct impact on me.
If I were to fear that any project I would undertake might have an undue impact (i.e. through manipulation or bias, rather than through information and education) on the results or on confidence in the results I would certainly not want to undertake such a project.
Goal: Confidence in Results
Mongolians’ confidence in the results of elections is shaken by all the unsubstantiated rumours that swirl around the press and politicians following the election. Clearly, rumour-mongering is a general pattern in the press, but it is the absence of evidence/further information that also plays a role in the tendency to jump to conspiracies as explanations, rather than offer actual evidence.
What can be done? Sant Maral’s Sumati is the only pollster in Mongolia, really. Yet, as he would likely readily concede, his polls are severely hampered by methodology (how do you poll a nomadic population?), the absence of a general social survey that would allow him to compare his results to such data to check representativeness, and – obviously – resources. The fact that credible, nation-wide pre-election polls are not possible, and that the number of exit polls is limited, means that election results stand on their own. In elections in many countries elsewhere, results are anticipated by polls and voters thus gain a sense that the election “came out right”. When there are surprises (most countries can point to elections that had surprise results, I think), they are examined, re-polled and re-examined at great length to figure out why polls were wrong. Note that the default explanation is that the polls were wrong, not that there was electoral fraud.
Short of orchestrating a Kickstarter campaign to heap money on Sant Maral’s head (if you orchestrate it, I will donate!), what are other options?
I have long thought that an election stock market would be a great option for Mongolia. You can find the concepts of an election stock market explained on WikiPedia and in numerous academic publications. Some colleagues at UBC have been involved quite actively in this as the UBC Election Stock Market.
The main benefit of an election stock market in Mongolia could be that its predictive power of results might bolster confidence in reported results. I.e. if there are enough reasons and indications to believe that the prediction generated by an election stock market has some validity (that’s a big IF with many different elements), then reported actual results could be compared to this prediction. Overlaps would reinforce confidence in results, differences would need to be analyzed further.
However, there are massive obstacles and hurdles to establishing an election stock market that have me leaning away from proposing this as an avenue for Mongolia.
There are some quasi-legal hurdles. Election stock markets are meant to be driven by the predictive power of a large number of financially-motivated speculators. I.e. if you think you’re prediction of the election outcome is a) solid, and b) different from the conventional wisdom, you could make a moderate amount of money by participating in the election stock market. No investment, no risk in making predictions, and thus little predictive value. However, participants are essentially betting on the outcome of the election, and thus might run afoul of gambling laws. There are legitimate fears about the manipulation of election stock markets, especially in a situation like Mongolia where few other predictions might exist and the stock market might thus end up influencing rather than predicting the result.
Goal: Voter Education
This goal builds on the assumption that better educated voters make better choices and hold politicians to account.
There are many different elements in voter education from promoting an understanding of the electoral system to registration processes, party platforms, party advertising, candidates’ bios, polling station locations, etc.
The Mongolian General Election Commission (СОНГУУЛИЙН ЕРӨНХИЙ ХОРОО) has been challenged in recent elections by some fairly late changes in election system, such as the abandonment of the female candidates’ quota in 2008, its institutionalization in the 2012 election, but also the introduction of a proportional representation national party list in the 2012 election. From my perspective, the GEC has done a good job under challenging circumstances, particularly when it comes to public information about voter registration and voting procedures.
The Mongolian parliament has also taken some quite progressive steps that facilitate voter education, such as the power of the GEC to check party platforms against their (fiscal) feasibility, i.e. “no unfunded promises”. Candidates’ campaign literature is also checked against approved and published party platforms. This is meant to give voters a chance to familiarize themselves with readily-available party platforms to inform their decision on candidates and parties. It presumably also provides an incentive to parties to pass campaign platforms that are clear and accessible to voters, as well as presenting policy choices.
Possible Efforts for 2016
I could think of two strategies that seem promising in the Mongolian context: 1. further facilitation of access to information about candidates and parties, 2. application of tools to facilitate voters’ choices, particularly as they have been developed in German-speaking countries.
Facilitating Access to Information
While parties make information about platforms and candidates available, surely making access to this information easier could make a positive contribution. I am particularly thinking of the wide-spread adoption of smart phones in Mongolia that makes it possible to consider a voter education app to be deployed in 2016. Perhaps the GEC is already considering this, but it could also be an effort that would be organized privately.
An app as I imagine it could be based on different organizing principles, location, party, candidates. A map would allow a voter to select her riding and to then receive information about the parties and candidates competing in that specific riding, as well as locations of polling stations, etc. The information made available here would come entirely from public sources, possibly via the GEC or directly from parties.
Likewise, voters could be given the opportunity to search for candidates by name leading to standardized information about candidates’ biographies, including past offices held, etc. Party information would reproduce campaign platforms, etc.
Facilitating Voters’ Choices
A more ambitious version of such an app might facilitate a match of voters’ policy preferences with party platforms. This is a model that is well-established in German speaking countries by now as the Wahl-O-Mat in Germany, or Wahlkabine in Austria. In English such apps are know as “voting advice applications”, “voting aid applications” or “votematch tools” (Wikipedia). These applications, mostly web-based until recently, allow voters (anonymously) to fill out a questionnaire on important policy choices and then point to a match or mismatch between these preferences and party/candidates’ platforms. The apps don’t offer a recommendation per se, but instead typically point to the extent of overlap between voters’ preferences and parties’ stated intentions. After filling out such a questionnaire, a voter might thus see the result that his preferences match the intentions of Party A to 65%, those of Party B to 63%, and those of Party C to 40%. This leaves a lot of leeway for voters to decide what level of overlap between preferences and intentions serves as their personal “cut-off”, i.e. is an overlap of 45% large enough that this voter wants to consider Party C or will he restrict himself to a choice between Party A and B? Since voters initiate the advice themselves, these are really tools to facilitate decision-making, not to influence voting behaviour.
Obviously parties have to be given an equal opportunity to clarify their positions on policy choices that are included in the list of the votematch tool, calculations have to be transparent and reproducible, and impartiality is essential.
Some votematch tools are compiled and hosted by public or quasi-public institutions such as Germany’s Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung (Federal Agency for Civic Education), Other examples such as Canada’s Vote Compass are hosted by media organizations. Applications have been generally prevalent across OECD countries, but have not spread much beyond these countries. It would appear that the widespread adoption of smartphones in Mongolia, coupled with the pre-existing efforts of the GEC would make an application in Mongolia quite feasible and desirable.
Clearly, the success of votematch tools depends on the neutrality and credibility of the organization(s) that “host” the tool online. Maximal transparency in all processes would be essential and either all parties should be invited to sign on, or no party involvement should be allowed. Foreign involvement would also have to be treated very carefully and in a transparent fashion.
Despite some of the risks inherent in votematch tools, I could certainly imagine an effort focused on the 2016 parliamentary election that would take the first step, i.e. the compilation of information on party platforms and candidates into an app, to test technology and the interest in it. The 2017 presidential election might then be an ideal occasion to develop and deploy a votematch tool as the direct competition between a small number of nation-wide candidates would lend itself particularly well to some kind of questionnaire.
The Media and Elections
One of the joys and strengths of Mongolian democracy is the vibrancy of the media, traditional as well as online. However, the Achilles heel of this vibrancy is the lack of credible information about the ownership of media outlets, whether they are broadcast, print, or online media. In the context of many media outlets that are owned and operated privately, there are numerous such outlets that are directly tied to prominent politicians or parties, or associated closely with political actors.
Perhaps the 2016 election presents an opportunity at self-regulation by media owners, or otherwise legislation that would force media companies to disclose ownership structures.