Rebuilding Trust in Electoral Institutions




Pearce Laanela, Therese

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The storming of the Capitolium in Washington and the collapse of the Afghan government are reminders that our democratic institutions are both precious and fragile. Less dramatic but equally concerning is a slow-burning undermining of institutions, whether through relentless political pressure, external threats, declining internal morale or rising defiance. Electoral management bodies (EMBs), the institutions designated to manage political change inclusively and peacefully, must be trusted for election results to be accepted. This trust can no longer be taken for granted. For this reason, many EMBs are now seeking to incorporate trust-building practices and mechanisms into their operational structures. Thwarting these good intentions is the stark reality that political agitation and tensions run high precisely when operational demands are at peak, creating difficult or impossible situations for electoral authorities to navigate with their reputations intact. This thesis extends institutional trust-building theory to encompass and be practically relevant to electoral authorities. Grounded in desk studies, participant observation fieldwork in Tunisia and a dialogic survey with globally active field practitioners, the research focuses on the interplay between stakeholders' expectations, the handling of predicted events and crisis moments by authorities, and the consequences for institutional trust. Using social science insights to enable a richer, contextualized understanding of electoral trust dynamics, this thesis describes how stakeholder anger and feelings of injustice complicate transactions and information flow with electoral authorities and deplete the legitimacy capital that electoral management bodies require to expedite democracy. While the technical delivery imperatives of election administration are well understood, this thesis shows a wider range of stakeholder needs and expectations that matter for trust-building. In addition to delivery-oriented transactional trust, an EMB trust-building model must also include values-oriented relational trust and the predictability that allows for security-based trust. By highlighting stakeholder perspectives, the thesis provides a social perspective to what has been seen as a technical and administrative problem and provides a broader range of pathways for EMB trust-building policy and practice.






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