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Impact of Polling Station Observers on Electoral Fraud in Ghana

Development Challenge

Legitimate, properly functioning elections are vital to the health of any democracy. A free and fair electoral process encourages citizens esteem of their nation’s political system and promotes civic engagement.[i] However, the opposite relationship also holds true: if citizens do not have faith in elections or in their government more generally, this can have a corrosive effect on the development of public institutions.[ii] In the context of developing countries, this is an especially serious threat, given the importance of sound governance practices to economic and social policy formation in line with national needs.

In many countries, the deployment of impartial observers to voting sites is an important method to improve electoral functioning. The logic is that observers discourage violence and fraud, thereby enhancing citizen confidence in the democratic process. The direct effect of observers in reducing election fraud has been corroborated in other studies. However, prior studies fail to take into consideration strategy redeployment of fraud as a response to election observers. This study analyzes the direct and the spillover effects of election observers on fraud.


Ghana’s government has operated as multi-party, democratic, and civilian-led since 1992. It is a closely contested two-party system, with the ‘New Patriotic Party’ (NPP) and the ‘National Democratic Congress’ (NDC) alternating executive power. Elections in the country have historically been extremely close; the margins of victory have been quite small relative to the size of the voting population.[iii],[iv] Incentivized in part by the narrowness of election outcomes, electoral misconduct is not uncommon. Whereas there are multiple points at the electoral process where fraud may transpire, some of the most concerted efforts to curb fraud have occurred at the polling station level.

In assessing the impact of such interventions, researchers partnered with Ghana’s ‘Coalition of Domestic Election Observers,’ a large nonpartisan organization that posts trained, neutral observers to election polling sites. Ghanaian law requires votes to be counted publicly after a day of voting: this data, collected after the 2012 presidential election day, was combined with official voter registration data from the Ghanaian Electoral Commission to form the basis of fraud measurements.

Evaluation Strategy

Researchers focused on identifying two types of fraud: overvoting, where the number of votes cast exceeds the number of voters registered at a given polling station, as well as ballot stuffing, in which the number of ballots in the presidential voting box exceeded the number of voters. 

This study was restricted to the Western, Central, Volta, and Ashanti Regions of Ghana: Volta and Ashanti are strongholds of the NDC and NPP, respectively, with Western and Central being politically competitive regions.  Sixty constituencies in those regions were randomly selected, with 30 percent of the polling stations within those selected constituencies randomly chosen to form the study sample. Each of the 60 constituencies was randomly assigned ‘high’, ‘medium’, or ‘low’ observer saturation, corresponding with 80 percent, 50 percent, and 30 percent of sample polling stations being assigned observers. In total, 1,000 observers were assigned to as many polling stations, with data being drawn from an additional 1,000 unobserved sites. 

Differences in fraud rates were assessed between observed and unobserved polling stations within constituencies. Spatial analysis also took place to better understand how observer presence at one polling site affected fraud at geographically neighboring stations.

Results and Policy Implications

Adjusting on the basis of constituency observer saturation, researchers estimated that the stationing of an observer at a polling site decreased overvoting fraud by roughly four percentage points—a 60 percent reduction in fraud relative the average for unobserved sites. Observers also reduce ballot stuffing by nearly 2 percentage points. Spatial analyses indicated that the presence of observers at one station displaces fraudulent activity to nearby unobserved stations; unobserved stations were approximately seven percentage points more likely to have overvoting if there were an observed station nearby. These relationships, spatial and otherwise, appeared stronger in constituencies where one party dominated.  

The data also suggest that observer presence at polling stations produces a net reduction of electoral fraud within a constituency. Even with strategic spillover, the overall impact of election observers is to reduce the two types of fraud analyzed. Thus, this research lends empirical evidence to the assertion that observers can effectively reduce fraudulent activity at polling stations, and moreover, provides guidance about the sociopolitical environments where their deployment generates the most powerful effects. In an increasingly democratic developing world, such lessons may be useful at improving both citizens’ perceptions and the actual quality of electoral institutions. 

[i] Lindberg, S. I., 2006. “The surprising significance of African elections.” Journal of Democracy, 17(1), pp.139-152.

[ii] Kaltenborn-Stachau, H., 2008. The missing link: Fostering positive citizen-state relations in post-conflict environments. The World Bank, Communication for Governance & Accountability Program.

[iii] “Ghana overview,” 2014. The World Bank. Retrieved from

[iv] “Political history of Ghana,” 2014. GhanaWeb. Retrieved from