The intervention carried out in this research project was done as a collaborative effort between London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and the National Initiative for Civic Education (NICE). NICE has a long history of election observations and voter education in Malawi. For the 2019 Malawi General elections, NICE had prepared a large-scale polling station observation, complemented by ward-level observers whose task it was to report in real-time on election related incidents. In total, NICE assigned stationary polling station observers in all 5,002 polling stations across the country. These monitored voting throughout Election Day. Once voting was completed, polling station observers also copied the vote figures for the presidential race from the result-sheet in all polling station before they were sent onwards. In addition, NICE also assigned 462 mobile election observers to each ward. Upon completion of voting, one ward-level observer in each constituency was tasked to monitor the constituency tally centre. Ward-level observers were equipped with smartphones to enable them to report in real-time on possible election incidences throughout Election Day.
Given this context, an intervention under the supervision of both LSE and NICE was carried out to evaluate the effectiveness of new mobile phone-based election observation methods. In particular, we wanted to know whether having observers take pictures of individual result-sheets at the middle of the results-transmission process could deter possible attempts to alter vote figures. Previous studies have shown that the presence of election observers tend to raise the costs of electoral misconduct in those locations where they are present, making it more likely that election officials and local actors abide by rules and refrain from committing fraud (Hyde, 2007; Enikopolov, et al., 2012; Ofosu & Posner, 2015; Callen & Long, 2015; Asunka, et al., 2017). Callen and Long (2015) have also shown that taking pictures of result-sheets at polling station level can expose attempts of tabulation-fraud and that providing officials with information about the intention to take pictures can deter officials from even attempting such fraud.
To examine the effect of having observers take pictures of result-sheets during the results-transmission process we randomly assigned NICE ward-level observers in 97 out of the 193 constituencies to gather photo evidence at the constituency tally-centre using their smartphones. The randomisation was done using direct random draw without blocking. Prior to the election NICE had verified with the MEC that they had the legal right to employ such observer methods at the tally-centres. On Election Day, upon arrival to the tally-centre, the assigned election observers were instructed to inform the official in charge of his/her intention to take the pictures. Once all counting and tabulation was completed at the tally-centre, the assigned election observer would then proceed to take pictures of all polling station result-sheets that had arrived to the tally-centre, including for presidential, parliamentary and local councillor races. Pictures were sent electronically via the observers’ mobile phones and then collected by the research team.