logo revista
Year 1 No. 3 September - December 2008

Electoral administration as a profession - Rafael López Pintor

Rafael López Pintor

Chief of Party
International Foundation for Electoral Systems



International Political Consultant; Ph.D. in Political Science by the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, and Doctor of Law by the University Complutense of Madrid, Spain.

Former tenured professor at the University Autónoma of Madrid, is currently serving as IFES Chief of Party in Nicaragua.

Has been UN Director of Elections in El Salvador and Mozambique, and Deputy Chief Observer in EU observation missions in number of countries including Ecuador, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Ivory Coast, and Nicaragua.

Consultant on election organization and monitoring to the UN, EU, OSCE, USAID, IFES, IDEA among other organizations in many countries of all regions of the world, including Afghanistan, Albania, Angola, Cambodia, Egypt, Honduras, Iraq, Lebanon, Lesotho, Liberia, Morocco, Nepal, Nigeria, Peru, and Yemen. Among his recent publications, Electoral Management Bodies as Institutions of Governance (New York, UNDP, 2000); and (with J. Fischer) Getting to the CORE. A Global Survey on the Cost of Registration and Elections. New York: UNDP, 2006).


What is a profession about?

Today, a profession is considered a way of dealing with problems in a particular sphere of reality by people who work under the same technical, procedural and ethical standards. Professional activities require basic common knowhow, rules of authority, and ethical principles. Knowhow is acquired at specialized educational centers normally, though not only at universities. Rules of authority develop from collegial bodies called professional associations. Ethical values are the philosophical foundations of a profession (professional deontology), stemming over time from broader cultural and technological change-the latter being faster than the former-and challenging well established authorities and morals until new adjustments are made between technological innovation and an obsolete normative order.

" The story of modern professions is that of continuing substitution of rational thinking and empirically based methods for older ways of doing as dictated by myth, religion or prejudice. In fact, separation between religion and science, church and government, was crucial for major scientific and professional development in the West since the XVI century. The most notable modern illustrations include the medical profession emerging from among the brumes of ancient philosophers/practitioners, mainly Greek Hippocrates and Galen, Arab Bin Cina and Bin Roes, and Jewish Maimonides; Catholic ancient doctrines on bodies manipulation, and even witchery.  Interestingly enough, a less obscure tradition exists concerning election management, at least in what comes to institutions like the secrecy of the ballot. Here a thin discontinuous thread, albeit vulnerable and imperfect, can be traced back to some Greek city states the Roman Republic and less clearly the imperial Senate, Renaissance Italian cities, post-Cromwell England, and ever after the American and French Revolutions at the end of the eighteen century. Also the practice of a secret ballot remained alive from the ancient world and through the dark Middle Age for the election of authorities in Christian monasteries, religious orders  and the very election of the Pope.

The essentials of a profession

In making specialized practice standardized and accepted, a profession shall include at least four basic elements:

1) books with codified specialized know how;

2) a code of ethics under which rules and procedures shall apply;

3) a professional authority entitled to ensure good performance by practitioners; and

4) diplomas or certification by a legitimate educational institution. 


Books specialized for each profession are necessary as repositories of accumulated knowledge as much as fountains of innovative finding. In addition, a code of ethics, besides providing moral guidance to practitioners, aims at enhancing professional independence from people from different professions, who are subjected to different codes of ethics; be these from other professional realms, or political, religious and generally the non professional normative framework ruling on ordinary life. Professional authority is based on knowledge and recognition among peers, contrary to authority emerging from other matters such as parenthood in the family or political criteria in government. Professional authority is normally embedded or institutionalized in the professional associations governing the profession, being in charge of the setting of standards as well as implementing sanctions depending on good or malpractice performance. 


Is still anything missing for a fully fledged development of election administration as a profession?


My answer to this question is yes and no. On the one hand, many electoral administrators have become professionals of this métier after repeatedly conducting elections according to genuine democratic standards. Such is mainly, the case in well established democracies from India to the UK, from Sweden to Uruguay just by way of cross-pollination from East to West and from North to South. The enhancement of electoral professional practice has been accompanied-and certainly sustained-by parallel developments of a professional civil service and widespread state apparatuses at both national and local levels. Failure at these latter developments are among the weakest aspects in a majority of the around 200 countries where some sort of competitive elections are taking place these days. The expansion of multiparty elections was one among other global effects from the enthusiasm associated with the rise of democratic values and investment in democracy in an unprecedented manner between the end of Cold War (1990) and the aftermath of September 11. Democratic progress at a global scale would fall into question ever since. Hence the no part of my answer to the question above: How can election administrators become professional at the secret ballot without hindrance or intimidation in political systems where independence from political establishments has become increasingly problematic; not to mention the lack of lateral support from faulting or weak civil services and state apparatuses?  This is the crux of the matter in most countries today.


The question remains of how advance the development of electoral administration as a profession at a global scale. A valid, albeit incomplete, answer is to start with what is feasible by filling in what is missing among the four elements mentioned above. There are books, codes of conduct and at least regional international associations of election administrators, some of them federating national chapters; all these elements enjoying quite a degree of recognition and legitimacy. The missing link is certification or diplomas issued by some highly-recognized international institution. This is more necessary in the absence of an independent civil service profession from where election administrators can be outsourced.



For most countries as well as for democracy development in general, the bottom line is that election administration is at best a profession in the making, for which learning legitimized by undisputable diplomas is required. Advantages for proceeding in that direction are widely offered by modern information and communication technology. One may fully benefit from learning through the web at well structured and controlled procedures while classical learning or a mix of both is equally valid. A key element for learning to enhance professional stature of election administrators is that certification is issued by an internationally recognized institution or group of institutions (i.e., the UN alone or with partners such as International IDEA, OSCE, IFES, IESA or CAPEL). The learning level shall be that of graduate school, flexible depending on participants' degrees and fields of education. Programs can and should ideally be organized at a regional or sub-regional level. In this regard, some initiatives are already being developed and tested. Such international certification would not only recognize some expansion of knowledge, but also-in cauda venenum -shall provide some shield for election administrators to protect themselves against interfering political executives, if only by making them aware that the ethics of electoral practice is not always congenial with that of power seeking, power keeping or even power sharing.  This clout on independence is the trademark of a profession.