By Rocky Asutsa
WASHINGTON – This week Americans voted in the midterm elections. As a Kenyan away from home, I sought to draw parallels between how this important exercise of the democratic process is carried out here and in Kenya.
To get the feel of elections in the U.S, I went to observe actual voting and did an election night crawl that took me to three parties.
At 11 a.m. the Oyster-Adams School voting center, or polling station as we call them back home, was my point of observation. A hundred yards from the station, I couldn’t see the long queues that characterize most Kenyan stations on polling day.
Robert Black, precinct captain at Precinct 26 Oyster station polling place, explained that people came in early before going to work, hence the slow stream of voters.
Just like in Kenya, the law prohibits campaigning inside voting halls or going in with campaign material.
The biggest difference is that the U.S. conducts midterm elections, then presidential elections two years later, while Kenya conducts a general election that encompasses both local and presidential elections.
By selecting their preferred candidates on a two page ballot, D.C. voters elected both federal and local leaders. But the congressional delegate D.C. choose cannot vote in Congress because it is a federal district – the country’s capital, not a state. D.C. also elected an attorney general, mayor, members of state board of education in each ward, at-large members of the D.C. Council, a council chairman, four ward members and ballot Initiative #71.
The 2012 general election in Kenya was a whole new ball game, the first following the passing of the new constitution in 2010. The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission conducted civic education on the four new slots on the ballot paper marked in different colors and with a fruit representing each of the political parties. The new offices were senators, governors, county woman representatives – reserved for women – and county assembly ward representatives for each of the 47 counties.
Although there were many differences between elections in the U.S. and in Kenya, on account of Kenya being a young democracy with technological and logistical hurdles yet to be surmounted, there were similarities.
For instance, campaign ads in Kenya feature politicians trying to gain votes by casting their opponents as less desirable for the job, something common in the U.S. as well. A sad trait is that a majority forgets promises the candidates made once they are elected, leading to a general mistrust of politicians.
IEBC commissioners were in Washington this week on invitation from the International Foundation for Electoral Systems to observe the midterm elections.
The team signed a memorandum of understanding with IFES, agreeing that the two bodies will cooperate in tackling voter apathy and conducting civic education for Kenya’s 2017 elections.
They met diaspora Kenyans in Washington on Thursday to discuss possibilities of a diaspora vote. The commissioners explained that it would require legislative action and policy change to enable the diaspora vote. They advised Kenyans who turned up to lobby their leaders back home.
My experience was pleasantly refreshing, especially when I found out about Initiative #71, which is effectively an opportunity for the people to vote on an issue, in this case legalization of marijuana. The party for supporters of the initiative took place at Meridian Pint, a pub, where patrons shouted, “Yes we cannabis! Yes we cannabis!!” when they realized the initiative had been approved by voters, although it is subject to congressional approval. State referendums don’t face congressional approval.
It doesn’t happen this way in Kenya. Referendums are usually proposed by politicians.
David Catania, I, vied for the D.C. mayoral seat and lost. His election party, at Longview Gallery, was laid back compared to that of his challenger. Entry was straightforward, I didn’t need to produce an ID and everyone mingled over free meatballs and chicken kebobs. A side-eye was glued to the big screen adjacent to the media section as conversation flowed and results trickled in. Catania conceded gracefully, something I need to see more of in Kenyan politics, since accusations of fraud followed by protracted court cases characterize post-election reporting.
The election party of Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser, D, at Howard Theatre was like a convention. The theater was packed, and there was a charge for drinks and food. The revolving concert-like multicolored lights did not help the photography, but the mood was jubilant.
Demont Pinder, 35, intrigued the few who could keep their eyes off the big screen spewing results, with his on-the-spot painting of Bowser. “I’ll give it to her as a gift,” Pinder said as he painted from Bowser’s picture on his phone.
Bowser hit the podium and started by thanking her parents – who were in the audience – and family for their support.
“You told me to conduct myself with integrity … I don’t have the words enough to express my appreciation,” Bowser said. “I will make you proud.”
She appeared different from when I saw her a week earlier during campaign when she was posing for pictures with admirers. In some way she was less accessible to the ordinary guy, almost regal. Or maybe it was just the new security detail effect.