Hakeem Baba-Ahmad

November 11, 2020

US: voting on a virus

Do not marry a widow until you know what killed her husband — African proverb

By Hakeem Baba-Ahmed

As you read this, the final word over who wins the US presidential election is being awaited in more or less the same manner people wait for results of COVID-19 tests. America has a very complex electoral process. Nigerians will find a few of the key features of the US system particularly odd.

The US does not have the equivalent of INEC, that monolith which has responsibility for conducting all our elections, except for local governments /councils. Elections in the US are organised by states, county and city officials.US has no central voters register. Voters are registered in locations by local councils and states.

There are many different ways you can vote in the US, unlike our system here where you can only vote by turning up at a polling center, getting accredited and casting your vote in the box. These are decided by local-level authorities. Popular votes, unlike the way most of the world have it, do not determine the winner.

The US has a peculiarity called the electoral college, a hazy and complicating mirror image of the popular vote which can and does cancel the popular votes on rare occasions. In 2015, the candidate of the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton won the popular votes by a margin of more than three million votes, but lost the elections to President Donald Trump who had more of the electoral college votes. To win the elections, a candidate must get at least 270 of the 538 electoral college votes.

The frenzy of the last few weeks of campaigning was targeting a tiny number of undecided voters, getting fringes into frenzy and influencing the numbers of electoral college votes. There are key states and electoral seats at stake, and those at congress (federal) level are vital in the manner they impact on the electoral college and the control of the two chambers.

In the last few weeks, tens of millions of votes have been cast. Millions more will be counted only after close of polls yesterday. Then the  electoral college will give its verdict, which is final, unless there is a tie, or a party challenges the results in the courts. The result can be challenged all the way to the US Supreme Court, depending on the nature of the challenge.

The possibility of the final verdict being tied up in all sorts of legal tangles and dragging the judiciary into a messy electoral dispute, and even post-election violence is real.

Certainly, President Trump has laid the foundations for rejecting the outcome of the election if he loses. The US is bracing for the possibility of serious violence or a prolonged constitutional crisis following the elections.

Nigerians will be less interested in the how, than who becomes the next US President. But we will all recognise the passion, the bitter contests and the suspicions over the electoral process.

While some will have a wry smile at the realisation that the most powerful democracy in the world bears some resemblance to ours, many will be worried that America’s democracy has exposed the nation’s  bare skeletons to a world that had deep reverence for its dignified protection of its vital elements.

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Americans had long been weaned of any pretenses that this election would add value to US’s credentials as a leader among nations that aspire to live up to democratic ideals. The gloves came off with the elections of Trump, and the trajectory had been increasingly unedifying since then.

The US elections are holding at a time of great concern over the rate of infections and deaths from COVID-19 virus in a country with the technology and resources to have no business with its statistics. In many ways, this election is about this virus. It is a plebiscite over Trump’s management of the virus from when it made its presence  in China to this period when it is locking down half the world for the second time and taking thousands of American lives weekly.

The result will, in part, show whether   Americans approve what appears to the cavalier manner Trump approached the entire threat of the virus, or if majority of them believe he could have taken it more seriously, prepared for it better, respected the science around it more, and taken   difficult decisions that were the only ways of limiting its damage.

It was inevitable that this virus will wear a political colour with an election around, but it assumed pride of place in the election only because Trump adopted a style that suggested that his interpretation of the threat was unconventional and superior, and it was not possible that he could be wrong.

Against all the evidence on the ground that things will only get a lot worse in the next few weeks for US citizens and the economy, Trump insists that a solution is round the corner, and concerns by those who disagree with him are unfounded hysteria. In the meantime,   about 1000 US citizens will start election day alive, and die before the day is over.

There is a virus afflicting America  that is more dangerous than Covid-19.It will be the real virus that will determine the outcome of the elections. This is the virus that affects the core character of the US, and threatens to change it substantially, or even beyond recognition.

It could give the US a chance to recover, although its vitals have been dangerously exposed and it will have to manage without full health. Its early symptoms have been manifested in a president who is anchored in a vey strong base that is comfortable with the cult of a leader who is committed to re-designing the basic elements that have made America what it had been, warts and all.

This virus has damaged much of the values that the US had held out to the world as its sources of strength, even if had not itself always lived up to them. These include leadership that inspired a nation with many divisions and limitations to believe in an America that holds a promise to be just, fair and compassionate; a nation with strong democratic institutions and processes that defy the ambitions and contempt of a president;

an America with  global leadership capacities and credentials that should both protect its core interests and keep other ambitions at bay; and a US that serves as a model in a world where there are many competing attractions.

There will be millions of Americans who will dispute this interpretation with their votes. Their views are no less important than those who think Trump represents everything that America is not and should not be.

They will insist that Trump is what America needs at this moment: brash, unapologetic and unconventional in redressing the balances between an America that lives by its founding values, and those imposed upon it by liberals and do-gooders who have made it weak.

This election is a contest for a major paradigm shift. It is an opportunity for Americans to put a stop to Trump’s vision of an America which bears his personal character, and another America that will recapture the ideals and the challenges of the pre-Trump era.

Do not put good money on either side winning. Americans have a very challenging future, fighting a run-away deadly virus, a deeply-divided nation and rediscovering a source of strength in a world becoming increasingly competitive and complex. Its future will be worse if the elections themselves are disputed in a manner that will worsen its damaged image in the world.

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