The Commonwealth has been observing electoral processes for over four decades. In that time, more than 160 elections have been observed in 40 countries.
Our approach is rooted in the 'Revised Guidelines for the Conduct of Election Observation in Member Countries', adopted at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London in 2018.
International best practice
These are based on the 1991 'Guidelines for the Establishment of Commonwealth Groups to Observe Elections in Member Countries' but updated to reflect changes to international best practice.
The Commonwealth was one of the original signatories to the Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation (DoP), agreed at the UN in 2005 to ensure the professionalism and credibility of the field.
There are now more than 50 endorsing organisations, which meet every year to ensure that the Principles remain relevant and are implemented. The Commonwealth hosted the first DoP meeting in 2006 and convened another meeting in 2018.
Commonwealth Observer Groups (COGs) are independent and autonomous and will normally be chaired by a former Head of Government or senior political figure. They are composed of eminent persons from a range of fields, including:
- electoral commissioners
- legal experts
- gender experts
- human rights experts
- media experts
Most COGs will also have a youth representative. Members are drawn from all regions of the Commonwealth and are appointed in their individual capacities. All missions are supported by a small team from the Secretariat.
COGs are given a mandate to observe and consider the factors affecting the credibility of the electoral process as a whole.
Observers judge whether the elections have been conducted according to the standards for democratic elections to which the country has committed itself, including national legislation and relevant regional, Commonwealth and international commitments.
Each COG is constituted by the Secretary-General following an invitation or welcome from a country’s election commission or government.
The COG arrives in the country ahead of polling day and meets with a broad range of stakeholders, including:
- the electoral commission
- major political parties
- civil society groups
Observers are then deployed in teams across the country, where they assess:
- pre-election environment
- results processes
An interim assessment is issued shortly after the vote. Observers then compile the final report, which is submitted to the Secretary-General and subsequently shared with the country’s electoral stakeholders and made public.
Election Observation at 40
In 2020 we commemorated 40 years of election observation through an events series reflecting on lessons learnt and how the methodology and international election observation community has evolved. We also looked ahead to future challenges and opportunities in the field of elections.
View our thematic timelines:
A key strength of the Commonwealth is the readiness of member countries to share knowledge and experience and learn from one another.
In our elections work, this is facilitated through the Commonwealth Electoral Network (CEN) and the development of guides and handbooks for election administrators on a range of topics.
Commonwealth Electoral Network
The CEN aims to promote good practices in the field of elections management, facilitate experience sharing and foster a sense of community among Commonwealth election management bodies.
Since its establishment in 2010, the CEN has convened four Biennial Conferences and a host of working groups on topics including:
- Voter education and electoral participation
- Independence of election management bodies
- Voter registration
- Managing the influence of incumbency
- Election cybersecurity
- Political finance
Following the declaration of the pandemic, the Commonwealth reached out to CEN members to explore the impact of COVID-19 on the management of elections, and to identify and share key principles, emerging good practice and lessons learnt. Read the Briefing Papers:
- Managing Elections in the Context of COVID-19: Perspectives from the Commonwealth (PDF)
- COVID-19 and Election Management in Africa: Challenges, Innovations and Opportunities (PDF)
In consultation with the CEN, the Secretariat has developed a range of publications on key topics. These include:
- Election Management: A Compendium of Good Practice
- Handbook for Gender-inclusive Elections in Commonwealth Africa
- Cybersecurity for Elections: A Commonwealth Guide on Best Practice
- Political Finance Regulation: A Best Practice Guide to Commonwealth Legislative Approaches
- Women and Political Parties in Five Small States of the Commonwealth Caribbean
- Political Parties and Women’s Political Participation in Commonwealth Africa
The Good Electoral Practice Series, developed by CEN working groups, features further guides on:
All election publications and Commonwealth Observer Group reports can be found through the Commonwealth Knowledge Centre.
A key part of our election cycle approach involves providing support to member countries between elections, as they act on recommendations made by Commonwealth Observer Groups.
This is done through training programmes, such as the Commonwealth Election Professionals (CEP) Initiative, and technical assistance tailored to the specific requirements of a given country.
Commonwealth Election Professionals
Launched in 2013, the Australian-funded CEP initiative provides a platform for professional development, knowledge sharing and peer support to electoral administrators across the Commonwealth.
Now in its second phase, over 220 election professionals have participated in CEP regional training events to date, helping to increase their technical capacity as well as their understanding of international election standards.
In addition, the networking and peer support opportunities offered have strengthened relationships and cooperation between regional election management bodies.
The Revised Guidelines outlining the Commonwealth’s approach to election observation state ‘election observation has a far greater impact and value when the recommendations offered by a COG, and other observers, are addressed so as to reduce the risk of shortcomings in future elections.’
This provides both the rationale and mandate for the delivery of bespoke technical assistance to member countries as part of the full electoral cycle approach. In recent years, the Secretariat has provided technical assistance on the following issues:
- Voter education and youth engagement
- Electoral cybersecurity throughout the electoral cycle
- Electoral and constitutional reform
- Boundary delimitation
- Women’s political participation
- Media training for election reporting
Observing the conduct of elections
Good Offices for Peace
The Secretary-General’s Good Offices for Peace play an important role in political dispute mitigation and resolution.
This work may involve the appointment of distinguished representatives, or envoys, to promote dialogue between key actors and support the development of sustainable solutions to often deep-rooted tensions.
Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group
The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) assesses violations of Commonwealth values and recommends measures to restore democracy and constitutional rule. Its activities, composition and remit are reviewed every two years.
The Commonwealth places a high priority on being a community of peaceful, democratic countries which promotes and protects shared values, including the separation of powers, rule of law and human rights. Established more than 20 years ago in 1995, the CMAG is the custodian of these fundamental political values.