There may not seem to be much that Americans can learn from Nigeria about how to conduct elections and democracy, but even troubled democracies can offer valuable lessons. In fact, the more troubled democracies are precisely the ones where the political engineer’s craft is most likely to be applied, and from their efforts we may be able to draw more general propositions and political-reform ideas. Such is the case with Nigeria’s method of reconciling federalism and presidentialism.
Those in the USA who like the regional/federalist implications of the electoral college but who recognize the inferiority of the state-by-state winner-take-all method used here currently should take note of the “distribution requirement” used in Nigeria.
In addition to a nationwide plurality, to be elected president of Nigeria a candidate must have obtained a minimum of 25% of the votes in at least two thirds of the subnational units of the federation (there are 36 states and a capital territory).
Variants of distribution requirements can also be found in Indonesia and Kenya.
One aspect of Nigeria’s rule that should not be emulated is the requirement that the runoff be repeated if neither candidate has met the distribution in the second round.* If the distribution cannot be met in either of two rounds, it is unlikely to be met in a third, and thus the rule sensibly should allow the result to be definitive in two rounds. Indonesia and Kenya do not have this feature, meaning that they encourage distribution by requiring it in order for a candidate to be elected in the first round, but their runoffs are by simple majority.
A potentially useful innovation on this rule might be to permit a candidate ranked lower than second in overall national first-round votes to be the vote-leader’s runoff opponent if he or she had a better distribution (however defined) than the runner up.
If a distribution requirement were to be considered for future direct elections of the US President, what should the requirement be? The vote threshold in the minimum number of states would need to be much higher than the 25% (of whatever number of states) to have any effect. The idea would be to discourage candidates from campaigning primarily in a few big states that would be sufficient to secure a national plurality (the fear of opponents of reform**) while simultaneously eliminating the incentive to campaign primarily in a few “swing” states (one of the main flaws of the current system).
Despite the potential strategic and practical benefits of a reform proposal along these lines, I have never seen a distribution requirement even mentioned in debates on reforming/abolishing the US electoral college. Let the debate begin right here in this orchard!
* Thanks to Jonathan for correcting an earlier error here (and also for noting that the other African country with a distribution requirement is Kenya, as the revision here now states). The value of peer review!
** I do not believe it is a justified fear, only that it is expressed by proponents of the status quo. (As earlier plantings in the electoral college and national popular vote block have made clear, there is evidence that even in some smallish states, the legislatures are not buying that argument. Does that mean distribution is unnecessary, even strategically? Let’s see how many other small/medium states agree to pass NPV before answering that.)
Final remark on Nigeria: As I note in a separate planting earlier today, the distribution requirement is not likely to matter in this year’s election. In fact, the election could turn out to be a debacle, with the opposition divided and having faced alleged fraud in the recent state elections. The problems of this current electoral cycle in Nigeria are in no way connected to the distribution requirement, which was an innovation of those who engineered the country’s first presidential constitution (in the 1970s) and were looking for ways to alleviate the regional conflicts that had led to the collapse of the post-independence parliamentary system amid secession and civil war.