The U.S. agency, the Institute for Electoral Systems (IFES), released last December a report, Guardrails for Democracy: A Guide to Strengthening Independent Institutions.

Written by staff members, Erica Shein, Katherina Ellena, and Alexandra Brown, the report examines public sector agencies involved with upholding the holding of free and fair elections. The report does not claim to be the definitive survey. Still the impression left is that the state electoral agencies were the key, almost exclusively, bulwark against electoral tampering and irregularities. With that conclusion – perhaps unfairly assigned to the authors – I take issue.

Is that necessarily the case? They have much scope to report malfeasances but rarely if ever make any definitive statements. They possess some authority at least in legislation to order corrective actions, but tend to exert it only under duress and then after pivotal moments have passed. They appear institutionally adverse to challenging state authorities, even those with clear self-interests at stake. To the degree, the report goes beyond enumerated bureaucratic safeguards, it is to recommend funding Civil Society to make a media case in hopes public dissatisfaction might alter the plotted outcome of unnameable agents.

The well-meaning IFES might seem to presume that public institutions and civil servants, funded by state budgets, are inherently immune to government pressures. Their weaknesses lying only in constricted authority and underfunding. They don’t already have enough power and money.

The authors do not address party apparatus of election monitoring provided by party agents and scrutneers. And again to be fair, that aspect was not in their stated outline. The result, nonetheless, is to fail to acknowledge that the competitive nature of the election process — and the designated party agents and volunteers ensuring compliance — are the single strongest bulwark against incumbent government abuses. Opposition parties rarely have the resources to out do incumbents. A big key to fair elections is the requirement of consensus among poll level agents and scrutneers (of the major parties) as to the integrity of the polling centre results. Legitimacy should flow up from the polling centre not down from heavenly experts.

The IFES report provides little if any comment what means opposition parties generally take to find redress – access to the courts. Or critically, should Guardrail Institution staff be required to testify in court? The opposition relies on its rights to petition the courts to suspend potential corrupted electoral results. No Guardrail Agency would file a court petition, to the best of my knowledge.

More electoral offices with more powers and funding will not make elections fairer if the issues of excessive incumbent influence remains both unacknowledged and unaddressed. The channeled competition and accommodations of the scrutineering process through all stages is key.

The agreement between the parties as to the quality of the election results may prove more useful than veiled and indecisive announcements of conflict-adverse public institutions, both domestic and international.

That’s the IFES report that should headline the news. That said, for what it purports to achieve, Guardrails of Democracy does an excellent job.

Competition and compromise remain key to a fair election.