'Confusing' electoral college, running battles: Five ways in which a US election is not like its African peer

Since the 1960s, nearly two-thirds of African elections have resulted in victory for the incumbent, though there have been some notable defeats too

Counting the votes in Nigeria's general election, held March 2015. (Photo/ File)

Counting the votes in Nigeria's general election, held March 2015. (Photo/ File)

PART I of this article explored how the current US election has taken on a particularly ‘African’ flavour. (READ: Birthplace wars and conspiracy theories: Five ways in which US presidential race is like an African election).

But here are five ways the American poll is nothing like an African one:

No “real” incumbent advantage

Pascal Lissouba, former president of the Republic of Congo, is apparently the source of that great quote appropriated by African strongmen everywhere – “one does not organise elections to end up on the losing side”. It’s not always because of outright stealing, but in Africa the incumbent advantage is real, and large.

Some have argued that voters see elections not so much as a choice between candidates, as confirming who they think is more powerful. As such, use of public funds and resources such as army vehicles and helicopters is routine in many African elections, and has the effect of projecting power – and so, the “inevitability” of the sitting president’s victory. Since the 1960s, nearly two-thirds of African elections have resulted in an incumbent victory, although there have been some notable defeats too.

But in the US, raiding state coffers (private ones offer lots of money) for your campaign rallies would be an extremely serious offence – strict rules around campaign finance prevent this.

Electoral college

The US presidential election plays out on two levels – the popular vote and the electoral college. Each state has its own electoral college; when the public casts their ballot for president, they are also casting a vote for anonymous designated intermediaries called “electors,” who almost always have pledged to vote for particular presidential and vice presidential candidates. To win the presidency, it’s not enough to win the popular vote, you also have to win a majority of electoral college votes in each state.

Most recently, in the 2000 presidential election, more Americans voted for Democratic candidate Al Gore, but George W. Bush was declared winner because he clinched a majority of electoral college votes. It’s a political upset that has happened four times in US history.

The electoral college system was started because the drafters of the US constitution felt that a purely popular vote would be too reckless, because ordinary people didn’t really have enough information to judge the best candidate. They also feared a popular vote would give undue advantage to parts of the country with high population.

No African country has such an electoral model, as politics is often mobilised along regional blocs – and the more ignorant voters are, the better, right? But then again, perhaps it’s not so wise having an electoral college – after all, isn’t it easier to bribe 20 electors, than 20 million voters?

Voting record matters

In the US, a candidate’s public position or voting record on particular issues matters a lot in any future attempt to seek office.

Voters punish you for flip-flopping on issues; Mitt Romney – the Republican Party’s candidate in the 2012 election against Obama – was at pains to explain his shifting and contradictory positions on abortion, same-sex marriage, immigration, the environment, health care, the economy, and more (See this extensive Wikipedia article on Romney’s backs-and-forth). That cost him big in his presidential campaign.

In Africa, this is nothing to worry about: “I was misquoted” is often a sufficient come back if anyone accuses you of speaking out of both sides of your mouth.

Beating up and intimidating opponents

Roughing up your opponents, breaking up their rallies, locking them in jail on flimsy charges - such as dancing, sending scary guys to stalk them, banning songs that laud them…sound familiar?

This kind of intimidation and violence is regularly reported in African elections where the level of political contestation is intense, so much so that – embarrassingly – foreign observers often gush in admiration if an election is relatively quiet and “boring”, because normalcy is unexpected. It goes without saying that this is pretty much unthinkable in a US election today.

Not a public holiday

Voting day is often a public holiday in many African elections, partly to ensure a good turnout, and ample time to participate in what is an often painfully manual process. Perhaps it’s also to make sure that people can “watch over” the counting process, in case someone thinks of stealing votes.

In the US, voting day is not a public holiday, and technology ensures that you’re in and out in minutes. The specific day is enshrined in the law – it is always held on the Tuesday after the first Monday of November.

There have been campaigns to have voting day declared a holiday in the US, on the grounds that it would increase voter turnout. If the African experience is anything to go by, this may not necessarily be the case – people may take it as just another day to laze around and drink a whisky.

The African urban middle class is often denounced for this apparent voter apathy. But there could be something else there – it’s often a way of passive-aggressive opposition to a quasi-democratic or semi-authoritarian regime.

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