Understanding elections through a comparative lens: How do Nigerian and U.S. elections compare?

By Tihana Bartulac Blanc

May 1, 2014   |   0 comments

Under the auspices of the International Law Institute, I had the privilege of meeting members of the Nigerian Senate Committee on Constitutional Reform on April 28. At an afternoon session, we spent time comparing elections conducted in the United States to those in Nigeria.

This type of gathering reflects Creative’s approach to supporting elections around the world through education and empowerment of national stakeholders to make informed choices about their own electoral and political processes.

Creative’s Elections team, which hosted delegations from Burma in 2012 and Turkey in 2008, is often asked by participants how their country’s elections compare to those in the U.S. When you consider the varying histories and geopolitical situations, the intuitive answer may be: they really don’t.

Similarities do exist – even between the most unlikely pairs, like the U.S. and Nigeria or the U.S. and Burma – and useful lessons can be drawn. In Nigeria, for example, the constitutional system is in many ways modeled after U.S. federalism.

And from a more general point of view, it is always possible to compare even the most different elections from a perspective of international electoral standards and best practices.

This week’s discussion at the International Law Institute was dynamic and informed, spurred by the questions posed by the members of the Nigerian Senate Committee. Much of the conversation focused on differences between electoral conditions in Nigeria and the U.S.

As an election practitioner, I have my own thoughts on elections in these two countries. I see U.S. elections troubled by partisanship and excessive decentralization. In Nigeria, electoral violence poses one of the main threats.

At their core, the electoral experience in the two countries is quite different: the U.S. is one of the oldest, and Nigeria a transitioning democracy. Despite all of the technical flaws in administering elections, the U.S.’s strong institutions and checks and balances still serve as the main guarantor of democratic elections.

Nigeria has made notable progress in administering elections in the span of only one electoral cycle, but their lack of comparable institutions requires that its election management bodies and related bodies fill the gap and perform at a much higher standard.

From this broad comparative perspective, the group of election experts at the International Law Institute moved on to discuss specific lessons Nigeria can draw from the U.S.

We identified two particular things that Nigeria should strive not to emulate: One relates to the two country’s similarities as federal systems. The U.S. electoral system is too decentralized, causing a lack of uniformity and standardization in electoral procedures which means that different voters are treated differently.

The second example was the weaknesses in the U.S. voting technologies, which became so notable in the 2000 presidential election. As Nigeria considers alternatives to its in-person paper voting modality, there is a useful lesson to be drawn about the impact election technologies can have on the election results and overall credibility of the election.

This visit, following one by the Nigerian Election Commission earlier in 2014, speaks well of Nigeria’s preparations for their 2015 general elections.

At Creative, we continue to serve as a resource to the Nigerian stakeholders as well as those around the world in providing analysis and advice on conducting credible and inclusive elections.

Tihana is a Senior Associate in Creative’s Electoral Education and Integrity Practice Area.