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Published: January 7, 2008

Kenya descended into chaos last week after accusations of vote rigging. The specter of further unrest haunts Pakistan after elections were postponed in the wake of Benazir Bhutto’s assasination. And two years ago Haitians clashed with the police in Port-au-Prince after a botched vote count enraged supporters of the leading presidential candidate.

Incidents like these reveal an abject lack of trust in the local election commissions that oversee voting. If cheating happens, as it surely has in Kenya, it is with the complicity or at least docility of these commissions.

Having led the United States-financed election observation mission in Haiti in 2006, and helped organize or observe elections in a half-dozen other countries, I know that the international community’s typical election assistance (technical aid and outside observation) does not prevent post-election violence.

Our hands-off strategy is usually grounded in a fear of taking away local ownership of elections, an especially delicate issue in countries with colonial legacies. But even dedicated, honest election officials can find themselves overwhelmed by limited capacity, outside pressures and political infighting.

The solution is a United Nations monitoring unit devoted not to elections, but to the work of election commissions. The unit would set and examine standards in the four areas that usually produce turmoil: transparency, inclusiveness, electoral procedures (including the all-important issue of vote count) and openness to technical assistance and observation. Commissions that instituted and maintained these standards would receive United Nations certification; the failure of commissions to be certified, or the loss of certification, would be an early warning signal well in advance of a potentially explosive election.

Countries with solid records on elections administration could apply for permanent certification and, barring credible accusations from opposition parties or observers, would be subject only to periodic review. International election-day monitoring would continue, of course, as a complementary, additional check.

It’s important that this election commission unit remain independent from the current United Nations Electoral Assistance Division, which provides its own advice to electoral authorities. Answering directly to a senior United Nations official would allow the unit to provide candid assessments, even in situations where the United Nations itself is helping organize elections.

There will never be a way to guarantee free, fair and nonviolent elections, particularly in countries where collective grievances are strong and institutional accountability weak. But it isn’t enough for observers, most of whom arrive shortly before polls open, to watch as elections are rigged or poorly administered and then cry foul as violence spins out of control.

Only by ensuring that election commissions meet minimum standards and are subject to continued, rigorous United Nations scrutiny will we inject badly needed legitimacy and stability into the election process.

Edward P. Joseph is a visiting fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.