Wednesday, November 9, 2016

2016 US elections: Lessons for Nigeria

It is the day after the widely publicised November 8, 2016 United States of America’s general elections. Though there were elections into 435 House of Representatives positions, 34 out of the 100 Senate seats, 12 governorship seats and a lot of partisan and non-partisan local elections and referenda, the most talked about was the presidential election. Deservedly so! POTUS or better still, the president of the United States of America is the most powerful political position on planet earth. By the time you’re reading this, citizens of America both home and abroad would have determined who their 45th president would be. While there are many presidential candidates, the real contenders were Senator Hillary Clinton of the Democratic Party and business octopus, Donald Trump of the Republican Party.  For more than a year, the duo had campaigned hard around the 50 states of the US soliciting for votes of the delegates to emerge flag bearers of their respective political parties before going into the main campaign for the November 8 presidential election.

I have been guest analyst on Nigeria Television Authority (Political Update) and Radio Nigeria (7am News on Monday, November 7, 2016) to discuss the just held US elections. I was also an accredited observer of the US mid-term election in 2010 where I had opportunity to watch elections held in Washington DC and Maryland. As a Political Scientist and election expert, I have been fascinated by the American electoral system. I am of the opinion that there are a number of lessons Nigeria can learn from that bastion of democracy. Let me say ab initio that the US system is not perfect.

What are the positives worthy of emulation from the American electoral system? First is the very inclusive and decentralised process. What do I mean? Apart from having about 150 registered political parties with many of them operating at different levels – federal, state and county (Many erroneously think there are two political parties in the US); the electoral system also have provision for independent candidates who contest without any political platform. There are also provisions for absentee ballot, early voting and out of country voting. Absentee ballot is for those who will not be around on Election Day. This is sent by mail, fax or could be downloaded from a dedicated website. 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. Out-of-country voting is for Americans in Diaspora. It was reported that about 40 million out of the about 150 million potential voters had cast their ballot ahead of the November 8, 2016 general elections.

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 online registration of voters as at 2010), e-voting as well as the use of technology by the media for opinion polling, voter education and election result tabulation. With the conduct of exit poll, it is possible to project winner of a particular election even before the actual ballots are counted. Due to the highly decetralised electoral system in place in America, each state adopts different electoral policy and voting system. While some adopt combination of e-voting and manual voting, others have only e-voting. For instance, in Washington DC, voters have a choice of using touch screen or paper ballot while in Maryland, all voters use touch screen i.e. e-voting as at 2010.  While some states allow registration of voters even on the day of elections, others have a cutoff date.

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. There is also no restriction of movement, no military road blocks or police checkpoints and no shutting down the economy as with our practice on Election Day here in Nigeria. It is possible to have election for this long because of adequate supply of electricity. It is also worth flagging the institutionalisation of staggered election in the US. While there is  general elections as was the case yesterday, there is also mid-term elections which are held into some partisan and non-partisan elective positions two years after general elections. In America, elections into Senate hold every six years and for House of Representatives, every two years. In the November 2, 2010 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.

I also admire American electoral system for its high level of political accountability. As can be attested to in this year’s presidential campaign, the candidates of Democratic and Republican parties attended three presidential debates where probing questions were asked about their public and private lives. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were x-rayed by the American media and indeed electorates on their lives in public service, business and even families.

One thing Nigerians must know is that American election is highly monitised. A lot of resources are raised and spent on political campaigns especially advertorials. According to Cable News Network, Clinton spent $450,563,244.01 on her campaign while Trump spent $238,951,814.21 on his campaign. I must hasten to say that much of these resources were raised from small donations. There is also a culture of volunteerism in American political system. A lot of people who believe in the political philosophy, manifestoes or agenda of their political parties render pro bono (free) services to the candidates of the party.

I must, in conclusion, say that American electoral system is not all glitz and glamour. There are hitches and negatives here and there just that it pales into insignificance compared to our own environment here. One big minus in the just concluded American election is the overwhelming use of hate speeches and negative adverts by both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Trump especially made a lot of reckless and ungentlemanly comments. He called his main challenger nasty, liar, crook and threatens to jail her if he wins the presidential election. Trump also said the election had been rigged and that he would not concede defeat. A Republican Party campaign office was also firebombed and there were disruptions at  some of the political rallies.

All said, I hope 240 years old jinx has been broken with the election of the first female president of America. This would mean three of the world’s most powerful countries of the world viz. Germany, United Kingdom and USA are effectively under women political control. I think the world would be better for it.