Elections in Kenya and the US: A comparison

Saturday November 17 2012


The day after the elections here in the United States, my morning Washington Post reported on the visit of some 400 election officials from 60 countries who watched the voting in the District of Columbia and in the neighbouring states of Virginia and Maryland.

The delegation included the chair of Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, Ahmed Issack Hassan.

I found it insightful and refreshing to learn something of how election officials from other countries view our elections when, for two decades, Kenyan and other sub-Saharan African countries have hosted election observers from the US and other countries.

Predictably, some of the visitors were critical of the fact that the Electoral College, not the popular vote, determines the winner of our presidential elections.

Each state has votes in the Electoral College equal to the number of representatives it has in the House of Representatives, proportional to the size of the population, plus two votes representing their equal voice in the Senate.

The Electoral College is an anachronism — why, indeed shouldn’t a majority of the popular vote determine who becomes president, as Mr Hassan was quoted as asking?

There are at least two answers to that apt query? One, the presence of the Electoral College illustrates that older as well as newer democracies are burdened by irrelevant, even dangerous traditions they have a hard time eradicating.

In the US case, the founders were ambivalent about majority rule, fearing the effects on the interests of a propertied minority. Today’s ethnic, religious, and geographical as well as economic minorities in Kenya and other countries still clearly share those fears.

It comes down to the reality that democratic constitutions are needed at least as much to protect minorities as to advance majority rule. Real majority rule requires a depth and breadth of trust across societal divides that remains elusive in many countries. Kenya is not alone in that respect.

A Cameroonian election official wondered why Americans conducted their national elections on Tuesdays, a working day where other countries, including his own, vote on holidays. The French, for example, vote on Sundays.

The delegation received the explanation that Tuesdays worked best for rural folk who were the vast majority when our Constitution came into being in 1789, a day after one working in the fields and before mid-week market days.

Clearly, Tuesday voting for this reason is an anachronism in a country where now only two per cent of the population lives in rural areas.

It is important to minimise conflicts between work obligations and voting. Interestingly, amidst the many detailed provisions of the Kenya Constitution, I do not find anything explicitly on this subject.

By the same token, more rural states receive more attention than if there were no Electoral College.

The new Kenya constitution requires a presidential candidate to receive at least 25 per cent of the vote in more than half the counties to be elected, perpetuating a similar requirement under the old constitution when there were still provinces.

[Art.138(4)b] Kenya’s way of insuring that rural and less populous countries are heard in elections is clearly more modern than our anachronistic Electoral College, but the purpose and felt need is the same in both.

Mr Hassan is quoted as observing that all campaigning in Kenya is supposed to cease a day before the elections, presumably on the principle that people need a day of quiet reflection, the better to cast votes thoughtfully and wisely.

But in the US, campaigns go full tilt right up to the wee hours of election day, but we are increasingly allowing early voting while campaigns are still in progress, intended to make it easier to vote.

John Harbeson is a professor of political science at City University, New York [email protected]