World Politics

Research Article

The Observer Effect in International Politics: Evidence from a Natural Experiment

Susan D. Hydea1*

a1 Yale University,


By pressuring governments to hold democratic elections and by becoming directly involved in the electoral process through technical assistance and funding or as election monitors, international actors now play a visible role in domestic elections and other democratic processes throughout the developing world. Although scholars have documented several macrolevel relationships between international-level variables and movement toward democracy, there has been little attention paid to the microlevel effects of international involvement in the democratization process. This article examines the effects of international election observation as a prominent form of international involvement in domestic elections and exploits a natural experiment in order to test whether international observers reduce election fraud. Using data from the 2003 presidential elections in Armenia, the article demonstrates that although observers may not eliminate election fraud, they can reduce election-day fraud at the polling stations they visit. The unusual advantage of experiment-like conditions for this study offers unique causal evidence that international actors can have direct, measurable effects on the level of election-day fraud and, by extension, on the democratization process.

Susan D. Hyde is an assistant professor of political science and international and area studies at Yale University. She is currently completing a book manuscript on the causes and consequences of internationally monitored elections. She can be reached at

* I wish to acknowledge valuable comments on previous drafts from Eric Bjornlund, Carew Bould-ing, Gary Cox, Don Green, Thad Dunning, Clark Gibson, Kristian Gleditsch, Peter Gourevitch, David Lake, Mat McCubbins, Irfan Nooruddin, Elizabeth Saunders, Sue Stokes, and the participants in several seminars. I also thank Anders Eriksson for making information available for this project. Any remaining errors are my own. I am grateful for research support from Yale University, the University of California's Institute for Global Conflict and Cooperation, and the Brookings Institution.