Maybe Trevor Noah is onto something: An African perspective on the midterms

Maybe Trevor Noah is onto something: An African perspective on the midterms

As Florida moves into a recount for closely contested seats for governor, senator, agriculture commissioner and others down ballot, and the Democratic candidate for governor of Georgia, Stacey Abrams, is under pressure to concede in her historic run to be the first-ever black woman governor,  the post-midterm debate has taken an unexpected turn in our 242-year-old democracy, with many – including the president – questioning whether these contests were free and fair.

Did Brian Kemp, the Republican candidate for governor of Georgia who concurrently served as the state’s secretary of state, use the power of incumbency to discourage certain groups of people from registering and deploy voter suppression tactics, including purging as many as 700,000 voters from the rolls ahead of the election?

In Florida, is the Democratic-leaning Broward County elections supervisor Brenda Snipes withholding information on how many ballots are left to be counted, as Republican Senate candidate Rick Scott alleges? And is Palm Beach County elections supervisor Susan Bucher allowing her staff to fill in voter intent on ambiguous ballots rather than submit them to the canvassing board?

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What about the nation-wide trend where 31 states have introduced or carried over 99 bills restricting voting access? These laws include stricter voter ID regulations which opponents argue disenfranchise otherwise eligible voters, especially the poor and people of color.

As demographics shift and Americans awaken to the fact that elections do matter, what is the line between vote protection and voter discrimination?

Like everything in this age of hyper-partisan politics, it depends upon your party.

And no surprise, South African-born comedian Trevor Noah is at it again defaulting to African stereotypes when talking about Kemp’s control over the Georgia voter roll: “That is some Africa-level shit right there.”

But maybe Noah is on to something.

Maybe introducing an African perspective would be a good thing – not from cliché-tempting analogies comparing the U.S. president and his Republican allies to autocrats, but from the perspective of learning from the experiences of relatively young nations seeking to build democratic institutions and to make individual votes count.

Periodic elections have become the norm in many African countries since the 1990s, marking a major advance from dictatorships to democracy.  The focus now by democracy activists is on the quality of the electoral process, avoiding empty balloting that seeks to add legitimacy to entrenched officeholders and authoritarian leaders.

The Brookings Institution describes the march of democracy across the continent as “often irregular.”  But, despite the challenges, there are an increasing number of positive stories, pushed by civic, electoral and youth-led movements.

Among those successes, 19 African incumbent leaders from 11 countries have been voted out of office since the end of colonialism.

Additionally, despite the ups and downs of historic transitions of power and continued electoral malpractices, democracy remains the preferred political system of most people living in Africa according to Afrobarometer, the continent’s leading polling organization.

If you ask the stakeholders driving political change in Africa what was the most essential event that permitted the emergence of voters’ free will, particularly in the nations where the incumbent has been defeated, many would concur that is was the establishment of a non-partisan electoral commission.

In the United States, the organization of elections falls to the states. In most African nations, this responsibility is held at the federal level with all power vested in a single institution.

The first responsibility of these commissions becomes the development of an inclusive, accurate and comprehensive voter roll. A report by the Electoral Integrity Project found that voter registration was the third most problematic component of the electoral process worldwide with almost every African election accompanied by polemics about the reliability of the voter registry.

Two of the 11 historical political transitions where incumbents were voted out include Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation where in 2015, President Good Luck Jonathan lost to opposition challenger Muhammadu Buhari, and in Ghana, the continent’s most mature democracy, where Nana Akufo-Addo defeated President John Mahama in 2016.

In both elections, activists put pressure on the electoral commissions to be transparent and to compile a fresh voter registry, believing it was the only way to ensure free and fair elections after disputed outcomes four years earlier.

In the 2016 election, Ghana activists launched protests under the banner of Let My Vote Count Alliance (LMVCA). The Electoral Commission (EC) of Ghana subsequently took some highly visible steps to improve the credibility of the voter register and launched a continuous registration process, which gave new voters a second opportunity to register.

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Nigeria’s first peaceful democratic handover of power between rival parties was rightfully credited to the leadership of the country’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and the introduction of new biometric voting technology to prevent double voting and ballot stuffing, both of which had been prolific through the history of Nigeria’s presidential contests.

Behind these changes were electoral management bodies with an understanding of the need to establish institutional credibility. But even so, campaign climates were intense, and in both Nigeria and Ghana, moments of instability and crisis did arise, but they were quickly extinguished.

Looking through the lens of African nations struggling for electoral justice, I conclude the following with respect to the freedom and fairness of the midterms.

First, Florida is Florida. In every election it is a highly contested state, with each county having its own unique way of doing things. It is what it is. Disorganized and messy, but democratic none-the-less.

Second, on the push towards voter IDs across the United States, Africa’s experience has been contrary to those worries being expressed. In Africa, the voter ID has become the most visible manifestation of voter inclusion and empowerment. For example, in Ghana, the opposition party took the EC to Ghana’s Supreme Court to demand the removal of 57,000 voters who had used the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS) card to verify their identities, given that such certificates could be acquired by non-citizens. The court deemed it illegal, and these voters were purged, but permitted to re-register with other forms of ID.  Cleary though, the ad-hoc nature of the voter ID laws in the US needs to be reviewed and inclusive.

Last, I believe that in the case of Georgia, where Brian Kemp presided as electoral commissioner over his own race, African activists would protest vigorously. They, like Stacey Abrams’ constituents, would perceive his rule changes to the voter roll as highly suspect and motivated by personal interests, and similarly call for his recusal from the process. And like in their own countries, they would insist that any changes to the law impacting the voter roll be open to consultation with all stakeholders.  

So, no, Trevor Noah, that’s not some “Africa-level shit” – Africans would protest it too, and have.

K. Riva Levinson is president and CEO of KRL International LLC, a D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, award-winning author of "Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa's First Woman President" (Kiwai Media, June 2016). You can follow her @rivalevinson