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WVS: Public opinion data

Aims

How do we know when elections meet international standards and principles - and when they fail?

The Electoral Integrity Project has launched a new battery of items, included for the first time in the 6th wave of the World Values Survey, measuring mass perceptions of electoral integrity. 

The aim is to understand how the public evaluated national elections and whether ordinary people think that contests in their own country meet internationally-recognized principles and standards. When do citizens trust the fairness of electoral procedures and authorities? When do they mistrust acts such as vote-buying?

The cross-national coverage and survey methods

The 6th wave of the World Values Survey (WVS) included a multidimensional battery of nine items designed to measure public evaluations of elections held in their own countries. Fieldwork for the 6th wave was conducted from 2010 to 2014, and the results can be analyzed to compare public opinion towards electoral integrity in 27 diverse countries. 

The cases in this survey had varied types of regimes, as well as countries in sub-Saharan Africa, post-communist Europe, and Latin America. This includes electoral autocracies holding contests which are seriously flawed for different reasons, as exemplified by violent intimidation and state repression of opposition activists in Zimbabwe and non-competitive contests in Kazakhstan, where President Nursultan Nazarbayev won an estimated 95.5% of the vote. Elections are also analyzed where less serious violations are reported, including in Nigeria, experiencing post-election inter-communal violence, Ukraine, where opposition parties alleged electoral fraud, and Kyrgyzstan, with administrative irregularities in recent contests. Public perceptions are also compared with liberal democracies which observers agree display higher standard of electoral integrity, functioning as a control, including Ghana, Estonia, and Uruguay.  

Concepts of electoral integrity

When constructing indicators, it is important that they meet the requirements of measurement validity, reflecting the underlying concepts. The items selected for the World Values Survey reflect widely-accepted international principles and standards, such as the requirement that votes should be fairly tabulated, the freedom of opposition candidates to run for elected office should not be restricted, and voters should not experience intimidation or violence at the polling station. These basic and minimal requirements are firmly grounded in international conventions on universal human rights.  

The electoral cycle approach assumes that the most overt techniques which are intentionally designed to distort the genuine will of the people arise from ballot stuffing, vote rigging and fraud on polling day and its aftermath. But many more subtle and legal techniques which also violate international standards are often employed well away from the public spotlight to limit party and candidate competition before a single ballot is cast, during the pre-election and campaigns periods, such as through overly-restrictive voter registration processes, ballot access requirements, and electoral thresholds. The items were therefore designed to reflect different stages in the electoral cycle not simply problems occurring on polling day.

The conceptualization also assumes that no country is wholly immune from problems of electoral administration and challenges of human rights. To reflect this understanding, the questions reflect universal issues which can potentially undermine electoral integrity in every country. Thus although electoral violence and bribery of voters are exceptional today in long-established democracies, the fairness of election officials and pro-government bias in TV news are common challenges for the quality of elections in every country. 

Measurement

To monitor public attitudes, the 6th wave of the WVS asked respondents the following questions: “In your view, how often do the following things occur in this country’s elections?
  • V228A. Votes are counted fairly 
  • V228B. Opposition candidates are prevented from running 
  • V228C. TV news favors the governing party 
  • V228D. Voters are bribed 
  • V228E. Journalists provide fair coverage of elections 
  • V228F. Election officials are fair 
  • V228G. Rich people buy elections 
  • V228H. Voters are threatened with violence at the polls 
  • V228I. Voters are offered a genuine choice in the elections 
Previous surveys have often used highly dichotomized value categories, capturing few shades of grey. In the WVS, however, respondents were asked to respond using a 4-point scale ranging from ‘very often’ to ‘not at all often’. These items were designed to reflect common issues in elections, described in everyday language, avoiding more technical matters which may be poorly understood by mass publics, such as attitudes towards specific laws, regulations or electoral procedures. 

The questions also ask respondents about their perceptions, rather than their direct experience. One reason is that respondents may be reluctant to acknowledge first-hand involvement in some problems, such as bribery or violence, due to fear of retribution, legal penalties, or moral norms. The significance and severity of any violations for electoral integrity also varies across the items, as does their meaning and interpretation in different contexts, for example in judging what counts as ‘genuine choice’ or pro-government bias in TV news. The list was ordered to intersperse positive questions about integrity and negative questions about malpractice, to encourage respondents to consider each item separately. The questions were also framed to capture perceptions of ‘this country’s elections’ in general, at whatever level, rather than to gauge reactions to a specific contest for local, legislative or executive office. Clearly controversial results in recent high-profile contests may have been at the forefront of respondents’ minds when answering, but we also sought to monitor perceptions of the usual quality of elections in each country over successive contests.

Factor analysis suggests that the items fall into two main dimensions, reflecting electoral integrity and electoral malpractice.

Results

The results comparing two items from the battery are illustrated below, illustrating the clear contrast in positive public perceptions concerning countries such as Uruguay and Australia, at one extreme, to more skeptical publics in Tunisia and Ukraine, at the other:
Source: World Values Survey Wave 6 (2010-2014).

Public perceptions, and the consequences of these for confidence and trust, political participation, and regime change, are fully analyzed in the book by Pippa Norris, Why Electoral Integrity Matters (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

Data release

Data for the 6th wave of the World Values Survey in around 60 countries, including around 27 containing the electoral integrity battery, is now released for secondary analysis. To download the data, go to www.worldvaluessurvey.org.