Thursday, November 11, 2010

Lessons from US mid-term elections

It was not my first time observing elections. I have been similarly engaged both in Nigeria and Ghana. However, getting invited as one of the global assemblage of people to observe the November 2, 2010 US mid-term election was quite exciting for me. In the one week that I was in America for the exercise, I tried to soak in as much information as I could on one of the world’s oldest democracies. It‘s true that America has over two hundred years of history of electoral democracy. Yet, I believe Nigeria does not need two centuries to overcome her challenge of credible elections. It took Ghana just about a decade to become the toast of the rest of the world on how to conduct acceptable and transparent polls.

My American trip was an eye-opener. If we must catch up with the rest of the world, we must learn the positive lessons from other climes. With Nigeria in the process of conducting her fourth successive elections, it is widely believed that the forthcoming polls will be far better than the previous efforts at instituting electoral democracy. I was part of the team that observed election at Washington DC (District of Columbia) as well as in Montgomery County, Chevy Chase, in Maryland. However, most of the information in this article were what I picked up from the briefings received from the organisers of the US 2010 Election Programme. America operates a highly-decentralised political system with each of the 50 states responsible for the legislation and conduct of elections. It has neither a national electoral Act nor does it have a national register of voters as each state has its database of voters. USA also uses advanced technology for its elections. There are all manner of provisions for e-registrations (about eight states have commenced online registration of voters), e-voting as well as the use of technology by the media for opinion polling and voter education.

I found out in the course of my stay that in some states in the US, voters need not have voter cards or any means of identification and that in about eight states like Washington DC, you can register and vote on election day. The only thing is that your ballot will be in special ballot box. Also, in places like DC, voters have a choice of using touch screen or paper ballot while in Maryland, all voters use touch screen i.e. e-voting. In the US, election campaigns are allowed even on election day. However, this is done some meters outside the polling centres.
US has provisions for absentee ballot for those who will not be around on election day. This is sent by mail, fax or could be downloaded from a dedicated website. I also understand that about 20 states have provision for early voting for those who want. These are done at some few dedicated voting centres at a specified time of the day. Unlike the absentee ballot which can be mailed back to the election authority, in the case of early voting, voters have to go to the voting centres to cast their ballot ahead of the election day.

I found it very interesting that in many states in the US, elections are held for 13 hours on election day, i.e. 7am - 8pm or 6am -7pm.This makes it convenient and possible for workers to cast their vote on their way to work, during lunch break or on their way from work. Unlike the misconceived notion here that America is a bi-partisan country or that it is a two-party State, it was news to me to find out that there are between 100 - 150 political parties in the US — from the serious to the ridiculous. These parties operate at different levels. National, state or county levels. The two largest and most popular parties are the Democratic and the Republican parties. There is also a provision for independent candidates. It is noteworthy that voters can write in names of any persons they want even when they are not officially on the ballot.

In America, elections into Senate hold every six years and for House of Representatives, every two years. In the November 2 mid-term elections, polls were held into the entire 435 House of Reps positions, some Senate positions, some governorship positions, Board of Education positions, etc. There was also referendum as people vote on some constitutional amendments. Thus, there were both partisan and non-partisan elections held on same day. In the District of Columbia, elections were held into eight partisan and non-partisan positions as well as referendum on Charter Amendment IV. In the Montgomery County in Maryland, elections were held into 19 partisan and non-partisan positions. Also, in the Montgomery County, election officials are called Election Judges with the Presiding Officer being the Chief Election Judge.

In the US, the equivalent of our Deputy Governor here is called Lieutenant Governor. While partisan Secretaries of State are in charge of the actual conduct of elections at the State, yet there are no fusses or attempt by parties or candidates to discredit the electoral process as it is very transparent. The two weak points that came out strongly about the 2010 American mid-term elections are the airing of negative adverts by some candidates as well as the rising cost of election. An estimated $4.6 billion was allegedly spent on TV commercials and adverts alone during the mid-term elections.

For Nigeria, the lessons are manifold; I look forward to when we will run true federalism as is practised in the US with the states genuinely in charge of their respective political and economic activities. I hope a day will come soon when we will have no worry for electoral violence and thus have no need for armed security agencies to police our Polling Stations as well as have opportunity to vote for 13 hours without restriction on movement. It is appealing to me to ask the National Assembly to make provision for Out of Country Voting for Nigerians in the Diaspora, as well as give opportunity for early and absentee voting for millions of people on election duty such as the election officials, observers, security personnel, drivers, journalists and others who are hitherto disenfranchised during elections.