The elusive sources of legitimacy beliefs: Civil society views of international election observers

  • Daniel L. NielsonEmail author
  • Susan D. Hyde
  • Judith Kelley


When do members of civil society view international election observers as legitimate? Motivated by recent work on the legitimacy of international organizations, we evaluate what type of information affects non-governmental organizations’ (NGOs) beliefs about international election observer groups, which include both intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) and international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) that seek to exercise authority, often regarding the same elections. Specifically, we examine the effects of two different types of information: information about the observers’ objective substantive features versus information that serves as heuristic shortcuts. Three survey-based experiments – one in Kenya and the others global – prime NGO respondents with information about both real and hypothetical election observer groups in ways intended to affect their votes for which organizations should be invited to observe the next election in their countries. In general, the primes about the objective substantive sources of legitimacy beliefs failed to produce consistent, measurable changes in responses among NGOs across both the hypothetical and real-world observer groups. That is, telling NGOs about the qualities of the organizations work failed to change perceptions. What mattered instead, however, was an organizations’ prominence or type, features that likely served as heuristic shortcuts. The findings, however, varied depending on whether we used hypothetical or real organizations. With hypothetical organizations, NGO respondents preferred other NGOs, suggesting an isomorphism heuristic. Conversely, with real organizations NGO respondents preferred more prominent and well-known intergovernmental organizations. This suggests that the isomorphism and prominence of observer organizations can drive legitimacy beliefs. Given the differences between using real versus hypothetical organizations, however, it also cautions against using hypothetical actors in survey experiments.


Legitimacy Civil society International election observation Survey experiment Heuristics 


Supplementary material (181 kb)
ESM 1 (ZIP 180 kb)
11558_2018_9331_MOESM2_ESM.docx (49 kb)
ESM 2 (DOCX 48 kb)


  1. Anderson, B., Bernauer, T., & Kachi, A. (2018). Does international pooling of authority affect the perceived legitimacy of global governance? The Review of International Organizations.
  2. Armingeon, K., & Ceka, B. (2014). The loss of trust in the European Union during the great recession since 2007: The role of heuristics from the national political system. European Union Politics, 15(1), 82–107.Google Scholar
  3. Ashforth, B. E., & Mael, F. (1989). Social identity theory and the organization. Academy of Management Review, 14(1), 20–39.Google Scholar
  4. Beetham, D. (1991). The legitimation of power. Macmillan.Google Scholar
  5. Benstead, L. J., Kao, K., & Lust, E. (n.d.). Does it matter what observers say? The impact of international election monitoring on legitimacy. Accessed 26 Apr 2018.
  6. Berger, J., Sorensen, A. T., & Rasmussen, S. J. (2010). Positive effects of negative publicity: When negative reviews increase sales. Marketing Science, 29(5), 815–827.Google Scholar
  7. Bjornlund, E. (2004). Beyond free and fair: Monitoring elections and building democracy. Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press.Google Scholar
  8. Bland, G. (2015). Measuring the quality of Kenya’s march 2013 election. Election Law Journal: Rules, Politics and Policy, 14(2), 136–147.Google Scholar
  9. Bornstein, R. F. (1989). Exposure and affect: Overview and meta-analysis of research, 1968–1987. Psychological Bulletin, 106(2), 265–289.Google Scholar
  10. Brewer, M. B. (1979). In-group bias in the minimal intergroup situation: A cognitive-motivational analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 86(2), 307–324.Google Scholar
  11. Brown, S. (2001). Authoritarian leaders and multiparty elections in Africa: How foreign donors help to keep Kenya’s Daniel Arap Moi in power. Third World Quarterly, 22(5), 725–739.Google Scholar
  12. Bush, S. S., & Prather, L. (2017). The promise and limits of election observers in building election credibility. The Journal of Politics, 79(3), 921–935.Google Scholar
  13. Bush, S. S., & Prather, L. (2018). Who’s there? Election observer identity and the local credibility of elections. International Organiztion, 72(3).Google Scholar
  14. Caldeira, G. A., & Gibson, J. L. (1992). The etiology of public support for the supreme court. American Journal of Political Science, 36, 635–664.Google Scholar
  15. Chaudoin, S. (2014). Promises or policies? An experimental analysis of international agreements and audience reactions. International Organization, 68(01), 235–256.Google Scholar
  16. Cole, R. J. (2013). Africa’s relationship with the international criminal court: More political than legal. Melbourne Journal of International Law, 14(2), 353–382.Google Scholar
  17. Dafoe, A., Zhang, B., & Caughey, D. (forthcoming). Information equivalence in survey experiments. Political Analysis Accessed 26 April 2018.
  18. Davies, G. A. M., & Johns, R. (2013). Audience costs among the British public: The impact of escalation, crisis type, and prime ministerial rhetoric. International Studies Quarterly, 57(4), 725–737.Google Scholar
  19. Dellmuth, L. M., & Tallberg, J. (2015). The social legitimacy of international organisations: Interest representation, institutional performance, and confidence extrapolation in the United Nations. Review of International Studies, 41(3), 451–475. Scholar
  20. Dellmuth, L. M., & Tallberg, J. (2018). Elite communication and the legitimacy of international organizations. Unpublished paper.Google Scholar
  21. Desposato, S., & Garztke, E. (2013). How “democratic” is the democratic peace? A survey experiment of foreign policy preferences in Brazil and China. Working Paper, Univ. Calif. San Diego and Univ. Essex.Google Scholar
  22. Desposato, S., Gartzke, E., & Suong, C. (2013). How popular is the democratic peace? A survey experiment of political preferences in Brazil and China. Working Paper. Accessed 26 April 2018.
  23. Downs, A. (1957). An economic theory of political action in a democracy. Journal of Political Economy, 65(2), 135–150.Google Scholar
  24. Edelman. (2018). 2018 Edelman TRUST BAROMETER. Accessed 15 May 2018.
  25. Findley, M. G., Laney, B., Nielson, D. L., & Sharman, J. C. (2017). External validity in parallel global field and survey experiments on anonymous incorporation. The Journal of Politics, 79(3), 856–872. Scholar
  26. Follesdal, A., & Hix, S. (2006). Why there is a democratic deficit in the EU: A response to Majone and Moravcsik. JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies, 44(3), 533–562. Scholar
  27. Franck, T. M. (1990). The power of legitimacy among nations. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  28. Gelpi, C. (2010). Performing on cue? The formation of public opinion toward war. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 54(1), 88–116.Google Scholar
  29. Gourevitch, P. A., Lake, D. A., & Stein, J. G. (2012). The credibility of transnational NGOs: When virtue is not enough. Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  30. Grant, R. W., & Keohane, R. O. (2005). Accountability and abuses of power in world politics. American Political Science Review, 99(1), 29–43.Google Scholar
  31. Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.Google Scholar
  32. Harteveld, E., van der Meer, T., & Vries, C. E. D. (2013). In Europe we trust? Exploring three logics of trust in the European Union. European Union Politics, 14(4), 542–565.Google Scholar
  33. Held, D. (1995). Democracy and the global order: From the modern state to cosmopolitan governance. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  34. Hetherington, M. J., & Nugent, J. D. (2001). Explaining public support for devolution: The role of political trust. In What is it about government that Americans dislike (pp. 134–151).Google Scholar
  35. Horowitz, M. C., & Levendusky, M. S. (2011). Drafting support for war: Conscription and mass support for warfare. Journal of Politics, 73(02), 524–534.Google Scholar
  36. Hurd, I. (1999). Legitimacy and Authority in International Politics. International Organization, 53(2), 379–408.Google Scholar
  37. Hurd, I. (2002). Legitimacy, power, and the symbolic life of the UN security council. Global Governance, 8(1), 35–51.Google Scholar
  38. Hyde, S. D. (2011a). The Pseudo-democrat’s dilemma, why election observation became an international norm. Ithaca: Cornell University Press Accessed 26 April 2018.Google Scholar
  39. Hyde, S. D. (2011b). Catch us if you can: Election monitoring and international norm diffusion. American Journal of Political Science, 55(2), 356–369.Google Scholar
  40. Hyde, S. D. (2012). Why believe international election monitors? In P. A. Gourevitch, D. A. Lake, & J. G. Stein (Eds.), The credibility of transnational NGOs: When virtue is not enough. Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  41. Hyde, S. D. (2015). Experiments in international relations: Lab, survey, and field. Annual Review of Political Science, 18(1), 403–424.Google Scholar
  42. Jennings, M. K. (1998). Political trust and the roots of devolution. In V. Braithwaite & M. Levi (Eds.), Trust and governance (pp. 218–44). Russell Sage Foundation.Google Scholar
  43. Johns, R., & Davies, G. A. M. (2012). Democratic peace or clash of civilizations? Target states and support for war in Britain and the United States. The Journal of Politics, 74(04), 1038–1052.Google Scholar
  44. Keating, V. C., & Thrandardottir, E. (2017). NGOs, trust, and the accountability agenda. The British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 19(1), 134–151. Scholar
  45. Kelley, J. G. (2008). Assessing the complex evolution of norms: The rise of international election monitoring. International Organization, 62(02), 221–255.Google Scholar
  46. Kelley, J. G. (2009a). The more the merrier? The effects of having multiple international election monitoring organizations. Perspectives on Politics, 7(01), 59–64.Google Scholar
  47. Kelley, J. G. (2009b). D-minus elections: The politics and norms of international election observation. International Organization., 63, 765.Google Scholar
  48. Kelley, J. G. (2012). Monitoring democracy: When international election observation works, and why it often fails. Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  49. Kelley, J. G. (2013). Watching the watchmen: the role of election observers in Africa. Think Africa Press. Accessed 19 Dec 2018.
  50. Levendusky, M. S., & Horowitz, M. C. (2012). When backing down is the right decision: Partisanship, new information, and audience costs. Journal of Politics, 74(02), 323–338.Google Scholar
  51. Levy, J. S., McKoy, M. K., Poast, P., & Wallace, G. P. R. (2015). Backing out or backing in? Commitment and consistency in audience costs theory. American Journal of Political Science, 59(4), 988–1001.Google Scholar
  52. Lister, S. (2003). NGO legitimacy: Technical issue or social construct? Critique of Anthropology, 23(2), 175–192.Google Scholar
  53. Logister, L. (2007). Global governance and civil society. Some reflections on NGO legitimacy. Journal of Global Ethics, 3(2), 165–179. Scholar
  54. Majone, G. (1998). Europe’s ‘democratic deficit’: The question of standards. European Law Journal, 4(1), 5–28.Google Scholar
  55. National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. (1992). NDI mission to the Republic of Kenya (International Delegation Report).Google Scholar
  56. Newton, K., & Norris, P. (2000). Confidence in political institutions: Faith, culture, or performance? In S. J. Pharr & R. D. Putnam (Eds.), Disaffected democracies: What’s troubling the trilateral countries? (pp. 52–73). Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  57. Nye, J. S. (1997). Introduction: The decline of confidence in government. In J. S. Nye, P. Zelikow, & D. C. King (Eds.), Why people don’t trust government (pp. 1–18). Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  58. Owuor, M., Nguyen, D., Kuria, A., & Salinas, A. O. (2008). The electoral process in Kenya: A review of past experience and recommendations for reform. International Foundation for Electoral Systems.Google Scholar
  59. Pearl, J. (1984). Heuristics: Intelligent search strategies for computer problem solving. Addison-Wesley.Google Scholar
  60. Rawls, J. (1971). A theory of justice. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  61. Rocabert, J., Schimmelfennig, F., Crasnic, L., & Winzen, T. (2018). The Rise of international parliamentary institutions: purpose and legitimation. The Review of International Organizations.
  62. Rubenstein, J. C. (2014). The misuse of power, not bad representation: Why it is beside the point that no one elected Oxfam. Journal of Political Philosophy, 22(2), 204–230. Scholar
  63. Rubenstein, J. C. (2016). Between Samaritans and States: The Political Ethics of Humanitarian INGOs (reprint edition.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  64. Sanchez, R. (2014, October 19). WHO to review Ebola response amid criticism. CNN. Accessed 16 May 2018.
  65. Scharpf, F. W. (1970). Demokratietheorie Zwischen Utopie Und Anpassung. Vol. 25. Konstanzer Universitätsreden. Konstanz: Druckerei u. Verlagsanst. Universitätsverl.Google Scholar
  66. Schmidtke, H. (2018). Elite legitimation and delegitimation of international organizations in the media: Patterns and explanations. The Review of International Organizations.
  67. Simon, H. A. (1955). A behavioral model of rational choice. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 69(1), 99–118.Google Scholar
  68. Stroup, S. S., & Wong, W. H. (2017). The authority trap: Strategic choices of international NGOs. Ithac: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  69. Suchman, M. C. (1995). Managing legitimacy: Strategic and institutional approaches. Academy of Management Review, 20(3), 571–610.Google Scholar
  70. Tallberg, J., & Zürn, M. (2019). The legitimacy and legitimation of international organizations: introduction and framework. The Review of International Organizations. (this issue).Google Scholar
  71. Tomz, M. (2007). Domestic audience costs in international relations: An experimental approach. International Organization, 61(4), 821–840.Google Scholar
  72. Tomz, M., & Weeks, J. L. P. (2013). Public opinion and the democratic peace. American Political Science Review, 107(04), 849–865.Google Scholar
  73. Trager, R. F., & Vavreck, L. (2011). The political costs of crisis bargaining: Presidential rhetoric and the role of party. American Journal of Political Science, 55(3), 526–545.Google Scholar
  74. Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1973). Availability: A heuristic for judging frequency and probability. Cognitive Psychology, 5(2), 207–232.Google Scholar
  75. Wallace, G. P. R. (2013a). International law and public attitudes toward torture: An experimental study. International Organization, 67(01), 105–140.Google Scholar
  76. Wallace, G. P. R. (2013b). Martial law? Military experience, international law, and support for torture. International Studies Quarterly. Google Scholar
  77. Weber, M. (1978). Economy and society: An outline of interpretive sociology. (G. Roth & C. Wittich, Eds.). Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  78. Zajonc, R. B. (1968). Attitudinal effects of mere exposure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9(2p2), 1–27.Google Scholar
  79. Zaum, D. (Ed.). (2013). Legitimating International Organization. Oxford. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Brigham Young UniversityProvoUSA
  2. 2.University of California, BerkeleyBerkeleyUSA
  3. 3.Duke Sanford School of Public PolicyDurhamUSA

Personalised recommendations