On Thursday, the 10th of December 2020, the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) in collaboration with the Election Resource Centre (ERC) and the Electoral Support Network of Southern Africa (ESN-SA) hosted a virtual public meeting to discuss the “Lessons from the American Presidential Elections 2020; The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”. The objectives of the meeting were to draw out key lessons from the American elections for Zimbabwe and the region and to proffer key recommendations from the best practices in the election. The United States elections always attract global interest as it is considered a democracy powerhouse in the world.
The meeting was attended by about 40 participants and attracted 105 Facebook views, in addition to participation on other platforms.
Participants in the Virtual Meeting
A team of renowned experts on democracy made up the panel, which consisted of Dr Chris Fomunyoh, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) Senior Africa Associate and Regional Director for Central and West Africa, Professor O’ Brien Kaaba, a Lecturer in Law at the University of Zambia and Senior Research Fellow at the SAIPAR, Anne Kathurima, an Elections, Democracy and Governance Practitioner and Jack Zaba, a Programmes Officer with International Republic Institute Zimbabwe.
Panelists of the virtual meeting
The meeting noted that just like all other countries in the world, America also grappled with whether to go ahead with elections or not in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some States adopted measures such as early voting in order to ease crowding and reduce the chances of the spread of the virus during polling. The contest was between the incumbent President Donald Trump of the Republican Party and his rival, Joe Biden of the Democratic Party.
Overall, panelists noted that the American elections provided an opportunity for analysts to learn various lessons about elections in what is considered a leading democracy the world over. It was noted that established democracies, election principles and policies can be undermined. They also brought to light the role of different political personalities, the media, civil society and the Courts in elections. The elections tested the tenacity of democratic principles and the Courts. The manner in which some decisions were made did not inspire confidence in the American democracy. However it was concluded that despite the problems noted with the elections, the fact remains that on the whole, there are some enduring of how elections must be held that characterized the elections.
Zimbabwe and other nations that postponed elections can take a cue from America on the need to uphold democratic principles given the fact that: despite being one of the nations hard hit by the novel corona virus, America managed to successfully hold elections in the midst of the pandemic. It was noted that although African countries may not have the same infrastructure and resources as America, democratic precepts must still be followed, and elections must be held using whatever means is available to them to contain the pandemic.
Other positive lessons from the American polls were that the electoral justice system performance was good and the elections were held with integrity. Despite attempts by some candidates to compromise the Judiciary, the institution was not shaken and made decisions based purely on the law. The Media also remained resilient throughout the electoral period.
The American electoral system was also applauded for being made up of very strong institutions that are difficult to manipulate. It was noted that elections are based on a defined set of rules and timelines which make it difficult to postpone them. The United States has almost 10 000 separate electoral jurisdictions where there are different sets of voter registers, and different rules in each state. The 4 year term limits for Presidents was also said to be very effective.
Another lesson to be learnt from the American elections is the merits of a decentralized and diffuse electoral system that has no central organ that can undermine the whole system. This is a strength because no bad apples can deliberately contaminate the entire system. Panelists bemoaned most electoral systems, particularly in Africa that are too centralized, having the risk of being manipulated from the center.
Sober discussions and contestations that characterized the pre-election campaign phase in America were also applauded. It was noted that Presidential debates are a part of information sharing and have therefore remained an essential part of the American campaign. Election opinion polls were also commended as an important way of predicting election results, but that their accuracy largely depends on the people or institutions doing the polls.
However, the meeting observed that there were other negative developments that characterized the American elections and certain areas that need electoral reform. One of the areas that were identified as needing reform is the issue of the Electoral College. It was noted that although it has its merits, it is open to many questions and concerns, particularly when a candidate wins a popular vote but does not win the Electoral College vote.
The use of social media was identified as being very useful in raising awareness and encouraging people to come out and vote. However, it can be abused as what happened in the American elections. There were concerns about technology being used to manipulate votes in America, as in developing countries. The meeting recommended the need for legislation controlling the use of social media in elections.
Another popular point raised in the meeting was that in some ways the United States recommends ideal democracy systems that they do not even practice themselves. It was agreed that America can also learn from the poor countries and the younger democracies, in both the good and the bad developments in these countries.
To sum up the discussion, the panelists were in agreement that there are still many more lessons to be learned between now and the inauguration of the new President in America. They commended the need for strong, responsive institutions that safeguard democracy. The need to accept and concede defeat in all electoral races was highlighted, and evidence gathering was also recommended as very important to the electoral process. There was also consensus that there is no country in the world that is not prone to democratic backsliding. Overall, it was agreed that although democracy may be messy and expensive, it is however ultimately the best form of government and must always be upheld, even in the midst of pandemics.
Source: Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN)