The United States (US) 2020 presidential election finally ended at the weekend after a five-day nerve-racking vote-count in which President Donald Trump of the Republican Party was defeated and his opponent, Joe Biden of the Democratic Party, was declared the winner after securing 290 electoral college votes against Trump’s 214 votes. Biden got 74. 9 million or 50.6 per cent votes while Trump had 70.6 million or 47.7 per cent votes.
At 77, Biden became the 46th elected president of the United States while Senator Kamala Harris became the first female and the first woman of colour to be elected the vice president of US. In his victory speech, Biden promised to be the president for all Americans. Many world leaders, including President Muhammadu Buhari, have congratulated Biden and Harris on their victory.
Although President Trump has not conceded defeat, there are some lessons the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) can learn from the US poll in terms of organisation and conduct of elections. Without a central electoral authority like Nigeria’s INEC, elections in US, like political parties, are organised along state and county lines. The hallmark of American electoral ingenuity is its incorruptible grassroots, beginning at the precinct, America’s smallest political unit, smaller than the Nigerian ward.
US elections are conducted essentially by local workers, school teachers, county staff and a large number of volunteers. In Nigeria, INEC conducts elections with its staff and other ad hoc staff, including members of the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC). The difference is that Nigeria would barely let these temporary workers do the job without looking over their shoulders or without the fear that someone may try to corrupt them. The hope in Nigeria is that if all holes are plugged to prevent vote rigging, through the use of electronic voting, then Nigerian election workers may begin to earn the trust that elections would be corruption-free. Although Nigeria is yet to codify electronic voting, there is hope that we shall get there soon.
As in all democratic elections, votes must be freely cast devoid of fear, intimidation or any influence whatsoever. It may therefore surprise some Nigerians that policemen and women, armed or not, are not allowed near polling places, as well as soldiers. These are precautionary measures to prevent voter suppression through fear or intimidation or any suggestion of coercive influence. However, thugs do not disrupt voting orcengage in ballot box snatching or destruction. Indeed, the poll watchers, party agents, are kept a few feet away so as not to constitute a source of intimidation to the voter. In contrast, Nigeria’s polling stations swarm of armed policemen and women and sometimes armed soldiers. Political thugs also wreak havoc to manipulate the process.
The most widely reported incident of thuggery or intimidation was on November 1 when a fleet of Trump’s usually boisterous supporters surrounded a Biden campaign bus on an expressway in Texas. It became the biggest scandal of the campaign. Americans were shocked. But, the Federal Bureau of Investigation moved in to investigate the incident.
The campaign wars were waged on television, newspapers and the internet, not in the streets, mostly through advertising as each candidate strove to distinguish himself from the other. We urge INEC to study how the Americans were able to organise early voting. More than 100 million Americans had voted before the Election Day. The postal services in Nigeria seem to be in its most elementary stage and could hardly be trusted to be used for elections.
Electoral turnout in Nigeria has been dwindling through the years. In 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari scored 10 million votes less than his predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan. In 2019, he won even less votes. The percentage turnout in 2019 compared to registered voters was exactly 34.75 per cent which barely qualified for a mandate worth the name. Nigerians want to participate in democracy. They want to vote, but the effort required gets more onerous with every election cycle. And a turnout of 34.75 per cent leaves the impression that democracy is unpopular, which could not be true, given the alternatives.
Let INEC devise a better method of getting registered voters to pick up their cards without spending hundreds of hours in INEC’s offices. As the Americans have proved, when voters are offered a choice of several days to vote, they do so in large numbers, not a one-day exercise full of tension, harassment, intimidation and corruption, including vote buying. Early voting may enable the INEC to schedule all the elections into one day, that is to say, the executive and legislative elections.
The campaigns remained violence-free. Protests sprang from various cities but none tried to obstruct the polls or attack opponents. The deep divisions in the electorate remained after nearly 145 million voters had exercised their rights with a hard-fighting Trump taking 70 million votes.
We congratulate Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on their victory, while hoping that there will be something good for Africa in their coming government.