An election is a formal group decision-making process, by which a population chooses an individual or multiple individuals to hold public office. Elections have been the usual mechanism by which modern representative democracy has operated, since the 17th century. Elections may fill offices in the legislature, sometimes in the executive and judiciary, and for regional and local government. This process is also used in many other private and business organisations, from village unions, clubs, to voluntary associations and corporations. The present universal use of elections as a tool for selecting representatives in modern representative democracies, is in contrast with the practice in the democratic archetype ancient Athens, where elections were not used. They considered elections an oligarchic institution. Most political offices were therefore, filled, using “sortition”, also known as “allotment”. By this method, office holders were chosen by lot, not by election.
Elections in Nigeria
In Nigeria, elections are conducted periodically into various political offices, across the 36 States and the Federal Capital Territory. The Independent National Elections Commission (INEC) is the Commission set up under the Constitution to conduct and supervise elections in Nigeria for the offices of the President, Vice-President, members of the Senate and House of Representatives, Governors, Deputy-Governors, and members of the States Houses of Assembly. States conduct local government elections, using the State Independent Electoral Commission (SIEC). In conducting free, fair, credible and transparent elections in Nigeria, INEC is supposed to always ensure that the accreditation, voting, counting, collation, and result declaration stages are appropriately conducted, following its guidelines and regulations.
Elections: United States v Nigeria
An election for President of the United States takes place every four years, on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. In other U.S. elections, candidates are elected directly by popular vote. But, the President and Vice President are not elected directly by citizens. Instead, they’re chosen by “electors” through a process called the “Electoral College”.
The process of using electors, is derived from the Constitution. It was a compromise between a “popular vote” by citizens, and a “vote in Congress”.
Before the general election in America, most candidates for President go through a series of State Primaries and Caucuses. Though primaries and caucuses are run differently, they both serve the same purpose. They enable the States to choose the major political parties’ nominees, for the general election.
Elections in the United States are held for government officials at the Federal, State, and Local levels. At the federal level, the nation’s Head of State, the President, is elected indirectly by the people of each State, through a system called the Electoral College. Today, these electors almost always vote with the popular vote of their State. All members of the Federal Legislature (the Congress), are directly elected by the people of each State. There are many elected offices at State level. Each State has at least, an elective Governor and Legislature. There are also elected offices at the local level (at counties, cities, towns, townships, boroughs, and villages), as well as for special and school districts, which may transcend county and municipal boundaries. According to a study by political scientist, Jennifer Lawless, there were, as at 2012, 519,682 elected officials in the United States.
While the United States Constitution set parameters for the election of Federal officials, it is State laws, not Federal laws, that regulate most aspects of elections in the U.S., including primaries, the eligibility of voters, the running of each State’s electoral college, as well as the running of State and local elections. All elections, be they Federal, State, and local, are accordingly administered by individual States.
In Nigeria however, it is the Federal Constitution and Electoral Act that guide matters of election. See Sections 65, 66, 78, 105, 107, 131, 137 and 182 of the 1999 Constitution and Sections 25-77 of the Electoral Act of 2011. The financing of elections has also long been a matter of great controversy, both in America and Nigeria. This is because private sources make up substantial amounts of campaign funds and contributions, especially in federal elections. Voluntary public funding for candidates willing to accept spending limits was introduced in the United States in 1974, for Presidential primaries and elections.
The US Federal Elections Commission, created in 1975 by an amendment to the Federal Election Campaign Act, has the responsibility to disclose campaign finance information, to enforce the provisions of the law, such as the limits and prohibitions on contributions, and to oversee the public funding of U.S. Presidential elections. In Nigeria, Section 91(2-3) of the Electoral Act provides for the amount candidates may spend for election. It provides that Presidential and Governorship candidates can spend a maximum of N1 billion and N200 million respectively, on election campaigns.
Eligibility to Vote in the United States
The eligibility of an individual to vote, is set out in the US Constitution and is also regulated at State level. The Constitution states that, suffrage cannot be denied on grounds of race/colour, sex, or age for citizens eighteen years or older. Beyond these basic qualifications, it is the responsibility of State legislatures to regulate voter eligibility. Some States ban convicted criminals, especially felons, from voting for a fixed period of time, or indefinitely. The number of American adults who are currently or permanently ineligible to vote due to felony convictions, is estimated to be 5.3 million. In Nigeria, under Section 12(1)(b) of the Electoral Act 2011, any person who has attained the age of 18 is eligible to vote.
Voters’ Registration in the United States
While the Federal Government has jurisdiction over federal elections, most election laws are decided at the State level. All U.S. States except North Dakota, require that citizens who wish to vote be registered. Traditionally, voters had to register at State offices to vote, but in the mid-1990s efforts were made by the Federal Government to make registering easier, in an attempt to increase turnout. The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 required State Governments that receive certain types of Federal funding, to make the voter registration process easier by providing uniform registration services through drivers’ licence registration centres, disability centres, schools, libraries, and mail-in registration. Other States allow citizens same-day registration on election day.
In Nigeria, voter registration is carried out by INEC. Section 10(1-6) of the Electoral Act provides that:
“1. The Commission shall compile, maintain, and update on a continuous basis, a National Register of Voters, in this Act referred to as the “Register of Voters” which shall include the names of all persons entitled to vote in any Federal, State or Local Government/Area Council Elections.
2. The Commission shall maintain as part of the National Register of Voters, a register of voters for each State of the Federation and for the Federal Capital Territory;
3. The Commission shall maintain as part of the Register of Voters for each State and the Federal Capital Territory, a Register of Voters for each Local Government/Area Council within the State and the Federal Capital Territory.
4. The register shall contain in respect of every person the particulars required in the Form prescribed by the Commission.
5. The registration of voters, updating and revision of the register of voters under this section shall stop not later than 120 days before any election covered by this Act.
6. The registration of voters shall be at the registration centres designated for that purpose by the Commission and notified to the public.”
In many States in America, citizens registering to vote may declare an affiliation with a political party. This declaration of affiliation does not cost money, and does not make the citizen a dues-paying member of a party. A party cannot prevent a voter from declaring his or her affiliation with them, but it can refuse requests for full membership. In some States, only voters affiliated with a party may vote in that party’s primary elections. Declaring a party affiliation is never required. Some States, including Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Washington, practice non-partisan registration.
In Nigeria, no person intending to register to vote in an election is compelled to first declare his affiliation to any political party. Indeed, many who register, especially the elites and elderly, never vote at all. See Section 9(1) of the Electoral Act, 2011.
Absentee and Mail Voting in the USA
Voters unable or unwilling to vote at polling stations on election day, may vote via absentee ballots, depending on State law. Originally, these ballots were for people who could not go to the polling place on election day. Nowadays, some States allow these ballots to be used for convenience; but State laws still call them absentee ballots. Absentee ballots can be sent and returned by mail, or requested and submitted in person, or dropped off in locked boxes. About half the States and territories allow, “no excuse absentee”. This means no reason is required, to request an absentee ballot. Others require a valid reason, such as infirmity or travel difficulties. Some States allow voters with permanent disabilities, apply for permanent absentee voter status; while some other States allow all citizens to apply for permanent status. This automatically allows them to receive an absentee ballot, for each election. Otherwise, a voter must request an absentee ballot before the election occurs. In Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington State, all ballots are delivered through the mail. In many other States, there are counties or certain small elections where everyone votes by mail.
In Nigeria, there is yet no provision in the Electoral laws to allow for diaspora, absentee or mail voting.
Americans living outside the United States may also register and vote, under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA). Almost half the States require these ballots, to be returned by mail. Other States allow mail along with some combination of fax, or email; four States allow a web portal. A significant measure to prevent some types of fraud, has been to require the voter’s signature on the outer envelope, which is compared to one or more signatures on file before taking the ballot out of the envelope and counting it. Not all States have standards, for signature review. There have been concerns that signatures are improperly rejected from young and minority voters at higher rates than others, with limited or no ability of voters to appeal the rejection. For other types of errors, experts estimate that while there is more fraud with absentee ballots than in-person voting, it has affected only a few local elections. (To be continued).
THOUGHT FOR THE WEEK
“If we don’t vote, we are ignoring history and giving away the future” (Pat Mitchell).