SMS as a Tool in Election Observation

Posted by CorinneRamey on Jul 11, 2008

In 2007, Sierra Leone had its first election since the end of a 10-year civil war. Previous elections had been run by the United Nations (UN), and there was fear that these highly contested elections would not be run fairly and transparently under the Sierra Leone National Election Commission (NEC).

Faced with the challenge of monitoring elections in a country that lacks infrastructure and reliable Internet access to transmit election data by conventional means, the monitoring group National Election Watch, abbrviated NEW, used a unique tool to transmit election data: SMS. ( had written prevoiously about this election and the role of SMS - see Texting It In: Monitoring Elections With Mobile Phones)

An article in the current issue of Innovations, "SMS As a Tool in Election Observation," discusses how, when, and why SMS has been used in election monitoring.  Although the history of SMS in election monitoring is relatively recent -- it has only been around since 2005 -- it has already had a positive impact on the democratic process in several countries. The article was written by Ian Schuler of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), a good friend and colleague in the network.

Schuler describes the methods used by NEW in Sierra Leone:

NEW’s efforts were aided by an innovative text-message reporting method. Observers used a series of carefully constructed codes to send short message system (SMS) messages to one of seven phones connected to a computer by USB cables at NEW headquarters. NEW observers could transmit complex information about the election, from minor procedural infractions to serious flaws. The computer then interpreted the codes and stored the information in a database, which included reports that facilitated rapid analysis ofthe data...NEW’s SMS rapid-reporting system enabled it to make timely and detailed reports that helped to instill confidence in the process and contributed to the peaceful transition to a new administration.

The reporting in Sierra Leone is just one in a series of examples of countries that have used SMS for election monitoring. According to Schuler, SMS election monitoring has been used since 2005, especially in countries where lack of infrastructure makes instant communication difficult. "Countries where the need for election monitoring is most acute often have significantly limited infrastructure and communications systems, and the volunteers upon whom the monitoring organizations rely may have limited time and resources," he writes. "Overcoming these challenges to guarantee effective citizen oversight of elections is at the heart of SMS reporting by mobile phone."

SMS was first used for election monitoring in Indonesia in 2005 and in Palestine in 2006. In Indonesia, election monitoring groups found landlines unreliable, but also discovered that mobile phone call centers presented their own set of difficulties. "For example, having a cell phone–based call center eliminates the opportunity to create a hotline that rolls to the next available phone line, as is possible with land lines," Schuler writes. "This can lead to a situation where observers have difficulty finding an open line, while other phones sit idle." SMS provided an ideal solution because multiple volunteers could text in at the same time, and staffers at the call station could call back the volunteers if necessary.

Schuler's piece is a good read, with a conversational, narrative tone and plenty of background on the case studies used. Schuler doesn't just discuss the use of SMS in the relevant elections, but discusses why election monitoring is useful -- whether with or without SMS -- and important to the development of civic engagement within a country. The article is not a guide to specific information on how to carry out the process or recommendations on what software to use (which we have been pushing NDI to produce), but it is certainly useful for those in the field of election monitoring and others who are interested in using SMS as a means for civic engagement and transparency.

Schuler concludes,

When citizens have more information about the electoral process and understand the degree to which elections represent their will, they are more likely to participate in the process and are better able to demand elections in which they can have confidence.In contentious and politically tense situations,the ability to comment immediately on the conduct ofthe election can help to stabilize a potentially volatile postelection environment. Election monitoring groups using SMS can quickly identify violations of citizens’rights and alert authorities in time to have problems remedied on election day.

The full article is here.

For more on the uses of SMS in election monitoring, check out these articles on the blog: SMS as Alternative Media in Elections, SMS delivers for Election Monitoring of the Montenegro Referendum on Independence, and Texting It In: Monitoring Elections With Mobile Phones. The MobileActive Strategy Guide #1: Using Mobile Phones in Electoral and Voter Registration Campaigns, is also available in English and Arabic.

smselectionsinnovationmag.pdf430.97 KB

Thanks Corinne

Thanks Corinne for the great write up. I'm also indebted to Katrin for lending her killer insight and penchant for clarification to an early review of the article.

Do you think SMS for data collection is the greatest thing since peanut butter met jelly? Do you think we're just scratching the surface? We have a great panel lined up at MA08 with Neal Lesh of D-Tree International, Yeal Schwartzman of Digital ICS, and Joel Selanikio Datadyne. Evangelists, doubters, and practitioners welcome.

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