By Gbemisola Abiola
In four out of every five conversations about the American elections, the greatness of America’s democracy is touted. Never mind that this notion is purely derived from observation, the certainty with which the conclusion is reached, especially by people who most likely have never left the shores of Nigeria, speaks a great deal to America’s favour. From the spread of American culture across the world, through her impact on global technology, to the strength and might of her military; America’s position as the most advanced civilisation of the modern world is perhaps not open to contest.
Nevertheless, I draw attention to America’s electioneering process; her system for selecting her leaders. I argue that more than a cursory viewing of the barrage of political pitches, the optics of campaigns, party conventions and political debates which are, by the way, very entertaining, a dispassionate assessment of the greatness of America’s democracy can be achieved. A beyond the surface scrutiny of her political system mirrors out ‘incriminating evidence’ which apparently plays against the common rhetoric, that the light of perfection cast on America’s democracy somewhat fades.
Never in any election year in American history has there been such massive spending on campaigns.
A mammoth $6bn has been estimated as the cost of both the presidential and congressional campaigns. In relatable terms, this figure covers a fraction, a little over 20% of President Jonathan’s proposed 2013 budget quoted at N4.92 trillion. Suffice to say, the amount is staggering. Whereas the presidential election gulps over a third of the total spending, equating $2.6bn, what’s left, $3.4bn is divided between the House and Senate elections. Is this certain to prejudice the elections; very likely.
Money is certainly a main subtext of any elections. It’s a great way to ‘keep score’ in the power and image race. However, when campaign spending moves from the field of the acceptable to the monstrously obscene, it challenges the idea of fairness that the American electioneering process espouses. Whereas in times past a benchmark was instituted to check and limit monies solicited, currently this restriction has been gutted down by the Supreme Court itself, leaving a huge loophole that may be exploited by predatory capitalist interests. The Supreme Court therefore implicates itself. Rather than be the forte that holds America’s democracy and its principles of fairness together, it becomes an unwitting accessory to political scheming.
Because of the Court’s Citizens United ruling, monies received cannot be scrutinised, neither can the source(s) be interrogated. This makes indeterminable the extent to which the interests of campaign funders and their affiliates will infect or, worse still, infest the policies of their supporting candidate, as several of the high-end donors have been linked to companies and business moguls with interests in aspects of the economy like oil and gas and security. Arguably, this compromises the integrity of the system and diminishes a candidate’s loyalty and patriotism. Although this ruling respects the First Amendment rights, it gnaws at the democratic ideal America champions – what she fights for in other countries.
The American electoral system is shockingly porous, such that it is accommodating to manipulation and easily susceptible to fraud and electoral malpractice. Across the country, especially in swing states – states known historically to determine the outcome of the presidential elections – voter suppression, disenfranchisement and ballot fraud are rife. According to a report released earlier this month by a United Nations-affiliated body, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), there is no federal-level election management body in charge of administering and organizing election procedures.
The administrative authority for overseeing elections, it states, is generally vested on the state secretary or a state-level election commission or board. With such latitude given to state secretaries, the abuse of power becomes highly possible. For instance in Ohio, a key swing state, Republican state secretary Jon Husted moved to restrict early voting in the crucial three days leading to the elections.
Irrespective of multiple court rulings in favour of early voting, Husted,still determined to restrict early voting as much as he could, limits the voting hours which will possibly be in favour of the Republican Party. Early voters are more likely to be minorities – Blacks and Hispanics- who are more likely to have lower incomes, less likely to have jobs that give them the flexibility and spare time to vote. This clear case of partisanship is indicative of laxity in oversight and a lack of administrative checks. By circumventing the law, Husted creates a biased political space detrimental to America’s democratic tenets: fairness and freedom.
In another vein, voting machines used in Ohio and most states in America were found to have been purchased from HART Intercivic, a company owned by Mitt Romney’s company Bain Capital. Meanwhile Husted‘s office has recently been discovered to have installed a software on these voting machines disregarding standard practice.
According to Ohio state law, all election systems, both hardware and software, must be certified by the state before they are utilised. However, by unilaterally classifying this new software as “experimental”, Husted was able to have it installed without independent certification.As is to be expected, this software will be responsible for tabulating and reporting official election results.Obviously, this could increase the chance of altering election results in favour of Husted’s party, the Republican Party.
This situation of gross electoral malpractice therefore begs interrogation. How is it possible that voting machines are linked to a candidate participating in the elections? Why is it acceptable that a state secretary is partisan and not a neutral arbiter? Not only is it morally incomprehensible, it is also ethically unacceptable for a referee to play in the game. Yet this apparently occurs in American elections. A combination of loopholes in the law, a weak administrative system and red tape at redressing the manipulation of the law, reduces accountability.
Indeed, there is a degree of hypocrisy in America’s testament as the bearer of the banner of freedom. If she denies her own people their basic right to choose their leaders, what integrity has she to assert or demand it from others?To paraphrase Joseph Stalin, he who casts a vote decides nothing; rather it is he who counts the votes that decides everything. For Americato reconstruct her image as a truly democratic nation, especially in this election, those counting the ballots must have greater respect for democracy than they do the lust for power.
As we await the results of Tuesday’s elections, we can only hope that America will give Africa and the rest of the ‘democratizing’ world a reason to expect that the ‘democratic ideal’ can be fully achieved.
Miss Abiola is a postgraduate student at the University of Lagos.