Lessons from US election

THE United States November 2020 election has turned out to be an unusual one.  Apart from recording the highest voter turnout in over a century, in which over 65 per cent of the voting-eligible population cast a ballot, the election has been mired in controversy. Although it has been called for President-elect Joe Biden after several days of hesitation, given the tightness of the race in several battleground states, the incumbent President Donald Trump has refused to concede defeat. He even declared himself winner of the election in several tweets on social media, while alleging that the votes were stolen in Pennsylvania and Michigan. He has challenged the results in court in several states. In Georgia, a recount had to be done, even though it did not upturn Biden’s victory. In Michigan, after a 2-2 blockade of the process of certification, the results were unanimously certified a few hours later. In Pennsylvania, Trump’s campaign has challenged the results on the grounds that its members were not allowed adequate access to observe the processing of the mail-in ballots, and that 1.5 million mail-in ballots in seven counties should not have been counted.

Throughout the campaign period, Trump has spoken to delegitimize the mail-in ballots as vulnerable to fraud. In contrast with their Republican counterparts who largely vote in person, Democrat voters were reputed to vote through the mail-in ballot to avoid the pressure of queuing to vote under the rampaging Covid-19 pandemic. Over 101 million voters used the mail-in ballot, a record number. In  several states, early mail-in ballots exceeded the total number of votes cast in 2016. Although President-elect Joe Biden has started putting his team together in preparation for the 20 January 2021 inauguration, the official transition process has not commenced because President Trump is yet to concede defeat. He has denied Biden access to security briefings and to other  resources he needs to  prepare for the White House. America’s democracy is going through the crucible. Although Biden has won both the electoral college vote and the popular vote, an incumbent president who ascended office by winning the electoral college vote while losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton in 2016 has failed to accept defeat. The controversies and disputes that have trailed the election and how the US deals with them have profound lessons for countries around the world trying to reform their electoral systems and improve on the quality of their democracy.

The first lesson from the unfolding drama is that  developing countries like Nigeria do not enjoy the preserve of politicians who do not approach the democratic process with responsibility and consideration for the common good. Before, during and after the elections, voters in the US have faced real fear of violence. Politicians have made statements that undermine confidence in the electoral process.  Voters have had serious concerns that their votes would not be counted because politicians have attempted to prevent them from being counted. There were even talks of whether there would be a peaceful transfer of power with the President refusing to concede defeat.  This shows clearly that institutions are effective, reliable and predictable when politicians uphold the rule of law and comply with established procedures and practices. A situation where politicians fail to uphold the sanctity of institutions and respect for the rule of law undermines democracy anywhere, hence the uncertainty that has enveloped the political space in the US several weeks after the election.

The 2020 American election also shows that a country has to prepare and adapt to changing situations in organising democracy. The US recorded huge numbers of early voting as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, as many voters adopted early and mail-in voting partly due to the fear of contracting the pandemic. In several states, in person votes were counted before the mail-in ballots. Initial results showed President Trump leading in those states.  When the count of the mail-in ballots commenced, the tally changed, flipped in favour of  Biden on the strength of the mail-in ballots he garnered in a close race. This has led to controversies and claims that the election has been stolen, heightening tensions and stirring disputes around both the process and results. It is clear that preparation for elections and reform of electoral processes must be undertaken early to ensure that the process is effective and not generate uncertainty.

The way some of the controversies in 2020 US elections are being resolved show the important role that independent, professional and dedicated electoral officials play in guaranteeing the credibility of election results and strengthening institutions. The head of the cybersecurity agency, Christopher Krebs, announced that the 2020 elections is the “most secure in American history”, contradicting President Trump’s claim of widespread election fraud. He was later fired by the president, even though the announcement he made was the product of a broad committee overseeing the elections in the Department of Homeland Security. Individuals have to defend institutions against those trying to undermine them for the institutions to become strong. They require speaking truth to power.

The elections showed clearly the promise and perils of democracy. Efforts must be made by the political elite to ensure that they do not win election by fuelling the divisions within society, whether in terms of race or ethnic, regional, educational or generational differences. The US has gone through a difficulty time with President Trump perpetually fuelling the support of his base through appeals to these lines of division. The last years and months before the election were filled with incidents of demonstrations against racial violence and police brutality against African Americans as seen in the ‘Black Lives Matter’ vs ‘All Lives Matter’ movements. The US experience shows that there is difficulty in trying to forge a nation from a history of difference, discrimination and high levels of inequality.  The struggle to build an enduring union amid threats to popular sovereignty is not an easy one.  Developing countries must learn from the pitfalls of the American system in trying to consolidate democracy and advance national integration.

In Nigeria, politicians are more committed to party, ethnic, religious and other such interest as against the requirements of bringing Nigerians together. In circumstances of conflict and crisis like the recent #ENDSARS protests, politicians quickly resort to fanning the embers of difference. Their positions are usually based on the advantage they stand to gain from promoting such sectional interests without regard to what happens to the country. That is why a section of governors in the middle of the#ENDSARS protests suggested that their own part of the country was against the protests while another set of governors maintained that the protests were designed to ruin the economy of their part  of the country.

With the US elections, efforts were made by leaders like President W. Bush, who belong to the same Republican Party as President Trump, to transcend partisan divides by congratulating President-elect Biden. President Bush spoke about how critical it is for the country to “come together for the sake of our families and neighbours, and for our nation and its future”. President-elect Joe Biden has taken the same stand, announcing that it is time to heal and bring the country together, thereby dousing the tension and edginess that had gripped the country.


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