USA Elections 2020: Lessons for INEC and Nigerian Electorate

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Magnus Onyibe, an alumnus of Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Massachusetts, USA and a former cabinet member of Delta State government suggests that Nigerian voters and the Independent National Electoral Commission have a lot to learn from the 2020 American presidential election

Two things that distinguish the November 3, 2020 general elections in the USA from the previous ones are the mail-in voting and early-voting which saw former USA Vice President and the candidate of the Democratic Party, Joe Biden polling about 75 million votes, (and still counting) while the incumbent President, Donald Trump polled about 71 million (and still counting).

By the time the exercise is concluded , a total of over 145 million American eligible voters would have voted.
That’s an unprecedented feat in the annals of American history at least in the last 100 years. Hitherto ,between 50% to 60% of Americans voted.
But in the 2020 presidential elections , a whooping 72% or thereabouts are estimated to have voted and that’s more or less an impressive 7% increase in the number of voters .

And that’s despite the deadly threat of COVID-19 pandemic that has significantly altered humanity’s way of life.
In fact the increase in votes cast by Americans is driven by the COVID-19 pandemic which has compelled most people to engage in mail-in voting and early-voting to protect themselves from contracting the Coronavirus, if they were to opt for in-person voting on November 3, Election Day.

The elections that ushered in Donald Trump as president in 2016, is such that, Hillary Clinton polled more popular votes totaling 65,853,514, which is 48.2% of the total votes, and 3 million votes more than the votes garnered by the declared winner, Donald Trump, who garnered 62,984,828 or 46.1%.

Although the electoral equation appears odd, it reflects a striking uniqueness of the USA electoral college system.
Remarkably, despite the fact that President Trump’s votes were 3 million less than the popular votes cast for Clinton who lost the election, he won the contest simply because he received more electoral college votes, 304 than his rival, Hillary Clinton who got 227.

In other words Clinton earned more popular votes , yet lost the election because of the unique role that the electoral college system plays in America’s electoral system.
Although the advocates of the electoral college system claim that it is a safe guard and bulwark aimed at protecting the sanctity of the American electoral system, it is opaque and therefore a process that is not practiced in Nigeria even though the Presidential system being operated in our country was borrowed from the USA.
I believe the Nigerian equivalent is the rule in the 1999 constitution that demands that a presidential candidate must win at least one quarter of 2/3rd majority of the votes nationwide.

So far it has worked for us, hence despite President Mohammadu Buhari’s oft touted 12 million votes from his northern political support base, he could not win the presidency of Nigeria until the 3rd attempt when he received votes not just from his ethnic enclaves, but from across the country. And he was able to achieve the feat by engaging in political alignments that earned him votes not only from the south-west, but also from south/east or south- south in the 2015 and 2019 elections which is in consonance with the spirit and letter of the constitutional provision that seeks to compel the person that qualifies to be the president to be the one who received a nationwide mandate via broad based voting.

Our country’s 2/3rd majority votes requirement for a candidate to be declared successful in a presidential election has also conferred the status of battle ground states on states like lmo and Rivers states for the current ruling party , the APC both in 2015 and 2019 presidential elections. Of course any state in south east and south-south could be battle ground. But the most susceptible to such change or swings are always targeted.
Put simply: To win, since a presidential candidate must garner at least a quarter of the votes in the 2/3rd majority of all the votes cast nationwide, some states become swing or battle ground states.

And the requirement has on a couple of occasions proven to be a thorny issue in Nigeria. This is currently evidenced by the absurdity of the Supreme Court ruling which awarded the governorship elections for lmo state in 2019 to Hope Uzodinma, the candidate of the ruling party, APC, whose votes could only earn him the fourth position after the governorship contest. But based on technical reasons, including recounting of votes allegedly previously suppressed or ignored, the Supreme Court, in a rather opaque and strange manner, annulled the election of Emeka Ihedioha, the candidate of the former ruling party, PDP who had been sworn into office as governor. And the ruling party’s candidate was installed after bypassing the other parties candidates that came 2nd and 3rd respectively in the contest.

In order to surmount the quarter of 2/3rd majority votes rule hurdle or obstacles, which had been a stumbling block on the path to Aso Rock Villa for candidate Buhari, a coalition of formerly ethnically oriented or political parties with native biases as well as clannish composition and outlook, such as CPC, from the north, ACN in south-west , ANPP and APGA from the south-east and part of the north merged with the soul aim of generating votes with national spread and thus be in compliance with the constitutionally requirement of least a quarter of 2/3rd majority votes of Nigerian electorates .

Before 2015 and 2019, the 2/3rd majority votes rule, had also created a political hiccup and runchus in 1979 as a fall out of the election of Alh Shehu Shagari(1979 -2003) .
It may be recalled that in 1979, the opposition party, Unity Party of Nigeria, UPN had challenged president-elect Shehu Shagari, and of National Party of Nigeria, NPN for falling short of winning the 2/3rd majority threshold. But the complex equation or matrix was resolved when the legal luminary , Richard Akinjide came up with the 2/3rd majority formula under very controversial circumstances.

Interestingly, in the 2020 USA presidential elections, despite the Coronavirus pandemic, more votes, amounting to estimated 75 million, (and still counting) were cast for the eventual presumed winner, Joe Biden, the candidate of the Democratic Party. And about 71 million (and still counting) have also been received by the incumbent president, Donald Trump, who has presumably lost the presidency by about 4 million popular votes.

Coincidentally, in Nigeria, President Buhari also defeated his closest opponent in 2019, Atiku Abubakar, by the same margin of 4 million votes , after he polled 15.2 million votes representing about 56%,
just as Atiku Abubakar, his closet rival scored about 11.2 million which is about 42%.
Given how diligent, committed , methodical and thorough the USA electoral council has been in the organization of the elections, (despite Trump’s refusal to concede defeat) going forward, the lndependent National Electoral Commission, INEC, Nigerian agency responsible for elections, can’t afford to continue to be supine.

More so as the chairman , Mahmood Yakubu has been offered a second term mandate by president Buhari which is a rarity, since no electoral umpire in Nigeria is on record to have been re-appointed for a second term.
A cursory look at the history of the head of federal elections organizing agencies since 1964 validates the point about Jega being the only umpire to have supervised two presidential elections, even as Mahmood Yakubu is on the cusp of also attaining that feat and becoming unprecedentedly, the only election umpire reappointed for a second term.

Perhaps a list of all the electoral umpires since independence would help put things in perspective:
The Chairman of the first Nigerian Federal Electoral Commission was Chief Eyo Esua (1964–1966) in the First Republic. When General Olusegun Obasanjo prepared for a return to civilian power in the Second Republic, he appointed Chief Michael Ani to supervise the 1979 elections. Ani was succeeded by Justice Victor Ovie Whisky(1980-1983).

During the Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha regimes , Professor Eme Awa (1987–1989) superintended over the electoral body. Thereafter, Professor Humphrey Nwosu (1989–1993), took over before handing over to Professor Okon Uya and Chief Sumner Dagogo-Jack (1994–1998) respectively. Justice Ephraim Akpata heeded the electoral body (1998-2000).
Abel Guobadia (2000-2005) succeeded Akpata and he too handed over the mantle of leadership to professor Maurice lwu (2005-2010) who was succeeded by Atahiru Jega(2010-2015).

Professor Attahiru Jega is the only umpire to have supervised two elections-2011 and 2015. Incidentally, no chairman of any of the national electoral bodies served two terms.
Not even Professor Jega that had the privilege of conducting two presidential elections.
And Mahmood Yakubu (2015-2019 and beyond ) is about to be the second to conduct two presidential elections, if his appointment for another five years term by President Buhari is ratified by the senate.

He would also be the first to serve beyond five years as a national electoral body chairman as the renewal of his tenure by another five years would mean he would be serving for an unprecedented period of 10 years.
Since the next presidential elections would be coming up in 2023 which is less than three years into his five years reappointment, he would be conducting that election.

And it would be in addition to the 2019 election, which he already had the privilege of conducting.
The decision by President Buhari to re-appoint Yakubu is an endorsement of the electoral umpire’s accomplishments since 2015, writ large.
It now behoves of Yakubu to justify the confidence reposed in him by elevating the organization of elections in Nigeria to much more higher and enviable levels.

Good enough, during his first tenure, Yakubu proved not to be a stranger to innovation.
This is signposted by the fact that following the sudden death of Abubakar Audu during Kogi state’s governorship election which he was poised to win in 2015, (but all the formalities had not been concluded before his passage ) there was confusion as to whether to proceed by allowing his running mate complete the circle. That snag or grey area has now been amended in the electoral act. The INEC chairman, Yakubu had also been innovative by introducing simultaneous accreditation and voting in the last Bayelsa state governorship election which smoothened the electoral exercise in the state. Another novelty in the administration of elections during the tenure of Yakubu is the continuous registration of voters which hitherto only happened just before the commencement of major election circles.
Now, l have read somewhere that INEC intends to introduce electronic voting into Nigeria’s electoral system using the upcoming Anambra state governorship election as a trial run.

Given the limitations in electricity power supply and poor telecommunications network in our country, is electronic voting ideal?
In light of infrastructure and logistics constraints referenced above, l assume that electronic voting would have severe limitations.

In the estate where l reside in ikoyi-Lagos, electronic voting from the comfort of our homes was adopted in the election of members of owners and residents association that would manage the estate in the next two years. The exercise was smooth. But the electronic voting exercise was conducted for only 600 homes, of which only 150 of us voted from the comfort of our homes in an estate with a minuscule population . That was quite easy because apart from the relatively small size of the location , it is also a place where electricity power supply is on for an average or minimum period of 23 hours a day.

So it is a no brainer to figure out that the electronic voting model may not be ideal for a national voting exercise in our country which has a population of about 200 million people; geographical spread of 923,768 km2 (356,669 sq miles); comprising of 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory, FCT where electricity supply that would facilitate electronic voting, is at best available only on an average of not more than six hours daily , nationwide.

I would assume that before deciding to embark on the electronic voting initiative, lNEC must have done its homework and convinced itself that it is achievable. Hence l’m not discountenancing their, initiative, work or effort .
But given the success of the mail-in and early-voting systems adopted in the USA for 2020 presidential elections which enabled the world’s leading democracy record the highest number of votes in its history,with over 145 million people voting , is it not time we also explored similar options in electing our leaders ?

As people in politics very well know, rigging often happens at voting and collation centers. If voters can send their votes by mail (via postal service) directly to INEC office and with multiple electronic tracking systems guaranteeing the sanctity of the votes, there may be more fidelity in the system. Especially so, as polling booths and collation centers fraud prone stages might have been cut off.

From all indications, early voting system would not only save the INEC and indeed our country, the stress, huge costs and the embarrassment of the perennial complaints about voting materials not arriving on time at the locations where they are needed, but it would also reduce thuggery and violence on the days of elections as fewer people would be voting on the D-Day.

The experience in the USA where early votes and mail-in votes yielded over 100 million of the 145 million votes before November 3 Election Day, validates the efficacy of mail-in and early voting system. So INEC should seriously consider adopting the system.

If we factor in the possibility that the ugly trend of ballot box and election results sheets snatching synonymous with Nigerian elections would also be highly reduced, or degraded, then there is a good case to adopt the systems that just worked perfectly well in the USA.
Another unique feature in the electioneering process in the USA is that it is organized at the state levels and as such decentralized.

Thats unlike in Nigeria where lNEC in Abuja calls the shots during elections in all the 36 states which is partly responsible for the logistics challenges that INEC is consistently grappling with whenever it is organizing elections. The centralization of the administration of elections in Nigeria constitutes another drag on Nigeria’s practice of constitutional democracy and hobbles the concept of federalism which we pretend to be operating in Nigeria, whereas in reality, we are practicing unitary system whereby everything is centralized.

Until we agree to devolve power from the centre (Exclusive Legislative List with 68 items) to the states, INEC would remain inured to logistics and other similar challenges that the agency faces during every election circle.
Arising from the above , what l would like to suggest to INEC and the presidency, is that they should consider sending a bill to the National Assembly for the review of our country’s electoral system with a view to factoring in mail -in and early -voting procedures as well as devolving national elections to the states (l’m aware that state electoral bodies are a sham) in the manner that the USA does it.

When that is done , we can see if under the watch of Professor Mahmood Yakubu, and indeed President Buhari, our electoral system could inspire confidence in Nigerians that their votes matter.

ONYIBE, an entrepreneur, public policy analyst ,author, development strategist, alumnus of Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts university, Massachusetts, USA and a former commissioner in Delta state government, sent this piece from lagos.