Electoral management bodies: the options

matchaba_hoveSound management is critical to the success of any election process hence increasing calls across the world for constitutionally established and professionally run bodies called Election Management Bodies [EMBs] to guide and manage elections on a permanent basis. (Pictured: Zimbabwe Election Support Network chairman Reginald Mat

These bodies vary from one country to another according to political regimes and institutional structures. They go by different names such as commissions, departments, units, councils, boards, among others. In Zimbabwe there is the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission while in South Africa there is the Independent Electoral Commission. The choice of a countrys electoral management model may either be the result of a holistic design process or a more or less appropriate graft onto an existing system of state administration. For instance, in post-colonial contexts, EMBs have been strongly influenced by colonial administrative patterns.

Why EMBs?

Fixation with EMBs arise from the realization that free and fair elections can only be realized if enough effort is invested in managing the pre and post-polling contexts of the election process. This thinking reflects a paradigmatic shift in the conception of an election as a one-day event to a conception of elections as processes with pre, during and post phases. Voters rolls have to be prepared in time to allow voter registration and inspection. Constituency boundaries have to be delineated in time to allow political parties [to scrutinise and lodge complaints] and parliamentarians [to debate it and propose changes].

Nomination procedures have to be made known to political parties in time. Voters have to be provided with relevant education to enable them to participate in the elections. Local and international observers have to be accredited in time to effectively undertake their mandates. Enough ballot papers have to be printed. The state media has to be monitored to ensure that it accords balanced coverage to all political parties. Mechanisms should also be put in place to resolve ensuing electoral conflicts. Election monitors have to be recruited and trained. Polling stations have to be designated in ways that do not disadvantage potential voters. That counting and tabulation of poll results has been processed and released to the nation without undue delays.

Underscored here is that in the absence of a properly constituted EMB, elections are at high risk of regressing into a free for all exercise where the fittest dictate the rules of the game.

Viewed this way, fixation with EMBs is in essence a search for excellence in the conduct of election business. EMBs have to act as instruments for building and consolidating democracy through regulation of the electoral play field. In both new and old democracies, there are increasing calls for independent electoral bodies that have capacity to promote democratic transparency and technical efficiency.

EMBs are no longer viewed from a purely technical administrative context but as conflict management bodies. However it is sad to note that while all SADC countries have fared very well in ensuring that there are laws and management bodies guiding the conduct of elections, malpractices continue to plague elections implying that legislation alone may not be the solution.

Models of EMBs

Literature review point to three broad models, namely the Independent Model, Mixed Model and Governmental Model-each typology reflecting its own set of strengths and weaknesses. Below is a critical appraisal of their profiles.

(a) Independent Model

Under this model, elections are managed by an EMB which is institutionally independent and autonomous from the executive branch of government.


Some the advantages of this model are that the EMB has an electoral corporate identity. It manages its own budget and thus enjoys financial autonomy and accountability. Thus it is in control of its own funding and implementation of electoral activities as well. The EMB is not accountable to a government ministry or department but may be accountable to the legislature, judiciary or head of state. It has a high level of technical efficiency because it has permanent professional staff to support it.

It is also less likely to be subject to restrictions on who can be involved in electoral management, as it may be able to draw from outside talent. Its concentration in electoral business may result in better planning and more cohesive institutionalization of election tasks.

Electoral legitimacy is enhanced as the EMB is perceived to be impartial and not subject to political control. Thus it provides a conducive environment for the development of electoral corporate identity and staff professionalism.


However, under this model the EMB may be isolated from political and electoral framework policy makers. It may also not have sufficient political influence to acquire sufficient or timely funding. Member turnover is another disadvantage which may reduce corporate experience and institutional memory. The EMB may not have the skills or experience to deal with bureaucratic and corporate environments. May be higher-cost, as institutional independence makes it difficult to co-opt (at no cost) governmental structures to assist in electoral implementation.

(b) Governmental Model

This is where elections are managed by the executive branch through a ministry such as the ministry of the Interior and /or through local structures.


The governmental model has self-renewing corporate memory and sustainability. It benefits from the available pool of bureaucratically experienced staff. It is well placed to cooperate with other government departments in providing electoral services. Has a cost advantage through resource synergies within and between government departments. It has a power base and influence within government.


Credibility may be compromised by perceptions of being aligned with the current government or subject to political influence. It is subject to internal decisions of government departments or local authorities on funding allocations and electoral policies.

Under this model staff may not have the appropriate electoral skills, while its bureaucratic style may not be appropriate to electoral management needs. Electoral administration may be fragmented among a number of arms of the executive branch of government with differing agendas.

(c) Mixed Model

Under this model, elections are managed by the executive branch through a ministry with some level of oversight provided by the independent to-tier component of the EMB.


Under this model the EMB has self-renewing corporate memory and sustainability. It is well placed to cooperate with other government departments in providing electoral services. The EMB has cost advantage through resource synergies within and between government departments. It has a power base and influence within government. The EMB has available a pool of bureaucratically experienced staff augmented by outside independent talent. The Independent EMB is in control of its policies and funding, whilst the Implementation EMB has cost advantages through resource synergies within and between government departments. Above all its dual structure provides checks independent of external observation.


Under this model credibility may be compromised as electoral activities are implemented by government bodies and monitoring powers may not be sufficient to rectify electoral irregularities. Member turnover in independent EMBs may reduce corporate memory and institutional memory. Independent EMB may not have sufficient political influence to acquire sufficient or timely funding. Implementation EMB is subject to internal departmental or local governments decision on funding allocations and electoral policies. Independent EMB may be lacking in real world political skills.

Implementation EMB bureaucratic style may not be appropriate to electoral management needs. Electoral administration may be fragmented among a number of arms of the executive branch of government with differing agendas.

EMB Membership Variations

How an EMB is constituted in terms of the composition and membership of commissioners has a direct bearing on its credibility and institutional capacity. Membership can be multiparty or combined or expert. A multiparty membership is where members are nominated by political parties qualified to do so. Expert membership variations are where politically non-aligned members are appointed on the basis of their professional skills. Appointment is purely merit based.

In the combined membership, there is a mixture of political and professional appointees. It is critical to note that the type of membership that is suitable for a particular country depends on the political environment, stage of democratic development and level of trust.

In the case of transitional democracies emerging from deep-rooted conflict, multiparty membership is proposed as by virtue of its being all representative, may assist in promoting trust and confidence in the initial stages of democratic transitions while expert membership EMBs may be more appropriate as confidence boosters as the electoral process grows. Thus depending with membership variation, recruitment and appointment of Commissioners can be through open advertisement and screening mechanisms or unilateral appointment or consultative appointment.

EMB Best Practices

While there is no single perfect model, best EMBs strive for independence, impartiality, integrity, efficiency and professionalism. Independent EMBs do not bend to political, partisan or governmental pressure in decision making; they have a constitutional existence; are manned by respected public figures that are politically non-aligned. The chair of such boards can be a judge, head of the civil service or a citizen with integrity. Recruitment and appointment processes must be open to all with public participation throughout.

Against this background ZESN recommends that: sound election administration is critical in ensuring confidence in the conduct of elections. Thus the Constitution needs to clearly provide the framework for the Election Management Bodys functions, capacity and autonomy. These functions should be holistic, giving it the sole mandate and responsibility of running elections and they should include all aspects of election administration including delimitation, nomination, voter education, voter registration and inspection processes particularly raised concerns. They should also cover regulation of the media and political party funding. Processes should ensure that the public and the legislature are given adequate time to debate and engage.

Commissioners should be appointed through an open process that includes public nominations which Parliament through the Standing Rules and Orders Committee shortlists on the basis of qualifications and integrity before ceremonial appointment by the President. The Commission should be accountable and report to Parliament. It should be manned by independent, adequate and qualified personnel.

The independence and efficiency of the body, including financial autonomy should be ensured. There should be increased accountability of the Commission, for instance, Commissioners could each be given areas of responsibility to enhance accountability. The law could require the commissioners to divide among themselves responsibility for the commission’s different activities so that each commissioner would be responsible for a particular activity and, in this way, promote equal participation by all commissioners.

An alternative way of distributing functions between commissioners would be to give each commissioner the responsibility for a particular province. The method of appointment should ensure the impartiality, all-inclusiveness, competence and accountability of the body. The participation of opposition parties and key stakeholders is important. The selection process of commissioners should be transparent and engender confidence in all stakeholders. These selection processes should also ensure that gender, special needs groups and youth participation or representation is achieved.

Editors Note: This article was compiled by the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) as part of its campaign for electoral reform in Zimbabwe. The ZESN is a coalition of non-governmental organisations working in the field of democracy and elections. The coalition campaigns for democratic and transparent electoral processes.

Post published in: Opinions

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