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By unknown | May 30, 2008 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

The irony was, to say the least, mind-boggling. There we were, a group of journalists from developing countries, telling citizens of a country regarded as an outstanding example of Western democracy that their voting system was undemocratic.

"The basic tenet of democracy is one man one vote," said Salom Binyam Bibai from Cameroon. "But in America the principle of one man one vote does not apply when it comes to electing its president, so America is not a democracy."

He was responding to input by Leslie Reynolds, the US executive director of the National Association of Secretaries of State, a body equivalent to an association of cabinet ministers in South Africa.

Reynolds was addressing us on the role that her organisation plays in ensuring that there was effective participation by the electorate in the presidential election.

Bibai's point was that in several developing countries, including his and Zimbabwe, presidents are directly voted for by the electorate on the basis of one man one vote.

But in the US the electorate nominate their presidential candidate who is voted for by the electoral college.

An electoral college is a group of citizens designated by the states to vote for the president and vice-president on their behalf.

The process for selecting members of the electoral college differs from state to state, but usually political parties nominate electoral college members at conventions or by a vote of the party's central committee.

This system gives each state the same number of votes as its members of Congress. There are 538 votes in the electoral college; a presidential candidate must get 270 to win (a simple majority).

So in December electoral college members will gather in their various capitals to vote. The votes will then be sent to Washington to be counted during a joint session of Congress in January.

If a presidential candidate does not win a majority, the 12th Amendment to the Constitution provides for the presidential election to be decided by the House of Representatives.

The house then selects the president by a majority vote, choosing from the three candidates who received the greatest number of electoral votes. Each state represented in the house casts one vote.

The explanation given to justify the electoral college system is that it is aimed at sharing power between the states and national government.

Bibai's argument was supported by many of us who have been invited from developing countries, including South Africa, Cameroon, Pakistan, Haiti, Venezuela, Uruguay, Honduras, Malawi and Afghanistan, to learn about the nuts and bolts of the US presidential election.

The chutzpah of journalists from developing countries, telling the Americans that they can learn from countries that are grappling with building strong democratic institutions, was interesting.

Their countries have the basic tenet of democracy - one man one vote - right and that is what Americans can learn from them.

But it must be accepted that despite this seemingly glaring shortcoming, the American system has various mechanisms that enhance the influence that Americans have on their government's policies. These include the interest group system, in which groups such as the National Rifle Association, for example, have proved to be so powerful in influencing gun-control policies.

Groupings lobby congressmen who then vote with their interest at heart. Failure to do so could see a congressman losing office. This is where the US electoral system of allowing direct voting for congress members is effective.

South Africa could learn from that - to hold elected representatives accountable.

Currently, though our system allows public input on proposed laws, the reality is that MPs know that the public has no power to hold them individually accountable. The only recourse we have is to hold the party accountable and vote with our feet come the next election.

Other aspects of the US presidential election that South Africa can learn from is how Americans go out of their way to involve the youth in elections.

Initiatives by parties and civil society to increase youth participation include "Rock this Vote" and "Go for the Vote". The youth are also motivated to be election monitors where they learn to understand the polling process and earn some money too.

l Ido Lekota in in the US courtesy of the state department.


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