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Nic Cheeseman, on behalf of his fellow researchers, received the prize for Outstanding International Impact for work in strengthening elections and accountability

A major award has been won by researchers investigating elections in newly democratic countries. The team have pioneered better ways of monitoring the risk of election manipulation and improved international interventions to counter fraudulent practices.

At the ESRC's Celebrating Impact award ceremony at the Royal Society, London, on Tuesday 9 July, Professor Nic Cheeseman, on behalf of his fellow researchers, received the prize for Outstanding International Impact for work in strengthening elections and accountability.

Existing monitoring practices can miss new forms of electoral manipulation. But research into election scams and unrest is giving civil society groups and policymakers working in newly democratic countries timely information about possible deception and violence, helping counteract fraud and intimidation before it occurs.

Manipulation of elections and associated violence are a concern in many countries, especially in those which have recently introduced democratic elections. Failure to tackle fraud and intimidation can lead to civil unrest and possible downfall of political systems, making it essential to find ways to identify and reduce risks.

Nic Cheeseman  led the UK research team, which included Professors Gabrielle Lynch from the University of Warwick, Justin Willis from the University of Durham, and Dr Susan Dodsworth from the University of Birmingham.

At the ceremony, a prize of £10,000 was awarded that will be used to inform parliaments, politicians and policymakers more widely around the world about the research findings and new ways that have been developed to protect democracies.

Drawing on the research evidence, the team and local researchers in several African countries worked together ahead of elections in the preparation of voting risk reports and by providing advice about potential polling manipulation. This enabled effective strategies to be developed to monitor elections and how to direct resources appropriately.

Commenting on the award and the influence that the team’s work has had over the past ten years, Professor Cheeseman says, “We have found a growing recognition among those working on democracy and elections of our core argument: those trying to manipulate elections are getting smarter, and so we need to find new ways to respond. Academic research can help in the fight for democracy by identifying new forms of electoral manipulation, and testing the most effective ways to counteract them.”

Research shows that election quality in new democracies is low and tampering with elections for political advantage is on the increase. Identifying electoral fraud by existing monitoring methods often struggles to detect activities ‘beyond the ballot box’, such as more subtle ways to intimidate political opponents and the manipulation of new electoral technologies.

The programme of work includes pioneering ‘deep election monitoring’ that brings together academics and practitioners in the UK and Africa in tracking, at an early stage, attempts to manipulate elections. This tracking and management model has been adopted by international donors (eg countries with long established democracies) such as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, leading to better informed decision making in countries such as Kenya, Ethiopia and Nigeria.

In a separate project with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, the UK’s premier organisation working to strengthen democracy abroad, researchers established that international organisations seeking to strengthen accountability are more effective when they work with a broader range of civil-society partners and adopt a portfolio of more and less challenging initiatives to manage risk and deliver better value for money for taxpayers. This has enabled the WFD’s to work more effectively in over 30 developing countries.

 Dr Susan Dodsworth says that: “Our partnership with the Westminster Foundation of Democracy has been mutually beneficial. It has enabled us to understand the challenges that those working at the coal face deal with on a day to day basis, and it has meant that we can suggest practical ways for the WFD to have an even bigger impact, strengthening the new democracies that need it most.”

In the past decade, researchers conducted surveys of thousands of people in Kenya, Ghana and Uganda to gain an understanding of how citizens of those countries experienced elections. Electoral information was also gathered from countries outside of Africa, such as Armenia, Brazil, Russia and Uruguay, which provided top-down and bottom-up perspectives on the conduct of democratic processes and the way elections are run in these countries.

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