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


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.

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  1. 1.

    See, for example, the 1992 report from NDI (National Democratic Institute for International Affairs 1992).

  2. 2.

    The Kenyan Star claimed that an internal report revealed that the EU had strong reservations about the processing of the results. Meanwhile, the International Crisis Group (ICG) noted numerous problems and criticized the swiftness with which international observer groups pronounced all well in Kenya’s vote (Kelley 2013). See also Table 2.

  3. 3.

    “Foreign election observers endorsed a deeply flawed election in Kenya. Now they face questions,” Quarts Africa, September 6, 2017. Last accessed 24 April, 2018.

  4. 4.

    We registered the experimental designs and pre-analysis plans here:, numbers 20151112AB and 20160224AA.

  5. 5.

    Note that this article engages primarily with the literature on international organizations in political science, though there are a number of other pieces that are relevant, and that a longer article could engage with more fully. For example, Lister makes important and related arguments about “northern” NGOs and their process of constructing legitimacy from an anthropological perspective (2003). This empirically focused article is strongly motivated by Tallberg and Zürn (2019) and we recommend any readers access both pieces.

  6. 6.

    For an application to international democracy as seen in international parliamentary institutions, see Rocabert et al. (2018)

  7. 7.

    Similarly, transnational NGOs have been criticized for a lack of accountability or representation, and their reputations might be difficult to shift (Grant and Keohane 2005; Rubenstein 2014).

  8. 8.

    Declaration of Principles for International Election Observations and Code of Conduct for International Election Observers, 2005. Available online at Last accesses April 29, 2018.

  9. 9.

    Note that what performance legitimacy means in the context of international election observation is subject to debate, and IGOs and INGOs in particular may have varying conceptions of legitimacy as it relates to their performance or the construction of “effectiveness” (Lister 2003). NGOs, we note, are not expected to represent the populations they serve in the same way as IGOs (Rubenstein 2014, 2016), and may not have access to performance legitimacy in the traditional sense. They may also rely more heavily on credibility and reputation (Gourevitch et al. 2012).

  10. 10.

    See for example Harteveld et al. (2013); Armingeon and Ceka (2014); Dellmuth and Tallberg (2015).

  11. 11.

    See, for example, Sanchez (2014)

  12. 12.

    Note that NGOs may become prominent not because they are passionately carrying out their missions, but precisely because they have managed to assuage multiple key audiences by toning it down (Stroup and Wong 2017).

  13. 13.

    Heterogeneity across the types of subject NGOs does not appear to have affected results appreciably. Treatment effects for the subgroups of NGOs self-reporting a political mandate or not are substantively similar to the main results reported in Table 3.

  14. 14.

    Experiment 1 (Kenya) also included additional treatment conditions derived from a collaborative project. They are shown in the online appendix but omitted for economy of presentation here because we did not retain them for Experiments 2 or 3.

  15. 15.

    Two control statements added to the five substantive objective conditions were used to create numerical balance in comparison with the seven named election observer organizations. This both facilitated experimental design and also allowed us to verify that no meaningful confounds arose from specific wording of the control statements, verified in subsequent analysis.

  16. 16.

    Covariates for the number of employees, number of volunteers, number of current projects, and whether or not the organization engages in political activities were included in estimation but omitted for presentation purposes. Omission of the covariates in estimation does not alter the results substantively. Full results can be viewed in the appendix. Additional treatment conditions not employed across all experiments were also included in estimation but coefficients and standard errors are omitted for presentation purposes. These fuller results for additional treatment conditions not retained across the three experiments are also available in the appendix. Again, their inclusion or omission in the models does not substantively alter results.

  17. 17.

    Note that IGOs and NGOs may have different preferences with respect to independence, as noted above, which suggests an interaction effect between the independence treatment and the named organizations. There is some evidence for the interaction, though not necessarily as expected. For the vote outcome, the interaction term for the independent treatment with the regional treatment is positive and significant; the interaction of independent and the UN is negative and significant for votes. All other interaction effects are either not statistically significant or not robust across specifications.

  18. 18.

    When subjects were randomly prompted that the monitoring organization was well known and widely covered by media, this treatment significantly decreased their votes for the observer group by 3.7. The mean number of votes received was 16.9 and the standard deviation 15.7. So, the effect size (in standard deviation units) was 0.23, which is modest substantively.

  19. 19.

    See Grant and Keohane (2005) for a discussion of the relatively weak accountability structures facing NGOs.

  20. 20.

    In 2007 in particular, the AU failed to criticize the elections that erupted in widespread riots.

  21. 21.

    Though note that this possibility is also consistent with generally high levels of trust in NGOs amongst the general public, and we do not test whether NGO respondents were more likely to trust election observation NGOs relative to the general public. See also the Edleman Trust Baromotor (Edelman 2018) and relevant work by Keating and Thrandardottir (2017) and Logister (2007)

  22. 22.

    Though note that much of this existing research focuses more on citizen attitudes about the legitimacy of the election rather than the factors that increase or decrease legitimacy beliefs about election observers.

  23. 23.

    Ironically, whereas the Carter Center had performed credibly in past Kenyan elections, in the 2017 elections, conducted after this study, a premature positive statement by former US Secretary of State John Kerry, threw the legitimacy of the Carter Center into doubt and deepened skepticism of foreign observers even further.


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Correspondence to Daniel L. Nielson.

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Nielson, D.L., Hyde, S.D. & Kelley, J. The elusive sources of legitimacy beliefs: Civil society views of international election observers. Rev Int Organ 14, 685–715 (2019).

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  • Legitimacy
  • Civil society
  • International election observation
  • Survey experiment
  • Heuristics