Observing Democracy in Kenya

Lines outside a Kilifi County polling station

Four weeks ago today, I flew to Kenya to join hundreds of international and domestic observers for Kenya’s second presidential election since a new Constitution was enacted in 2010. With memories lingering of the violence and unrest that broke out after the 2007 elections, resulting in the deaths of over a thousand people, the tenor of messages from friends changed as my departure date approached. “Be careful in Kenya.” A few friends sent links to stories about a top election commission official who was murdered a week before the election. The links didn’t come with any commentary, just the underlying message of, “be safe.”

It was still dark when my observation partner and I arrived at the St. Thomas Primary school in Kilifi on Tuesday, August 8. Security opened the gates to the school so our car could pass through, but we had to drive carefully as hundreds of Kenyans had already lined up to vote. Some were checking their names on the lists posted to the side of the school — using the dim light of cell phones to determine which polling station inside the school they should report to. Others were lined up quietly, waiting for the polls to open.

We entered the polling station just after 5:30am, where eight staff were working furiously to arrange the room for voters. Beginning at 6am, voters would enter one at a time and have their fingerprint scanned for identification. After presenting an additional photo ID, they would be issued six different ballots — one for each race. The voters went to one of two cardboard voting booths, marked each ballot for their candidate of choice, then folded the ballots and slid each one into a ballot box — the color of the box lid corresponding to the color of the ballot paper. White for President. Purple for Women Member of the National Assembly. Green for Senator. With just one kerosene lamp for the room, the early arrivers strained to make sure the pale colors of each ballot paper matched the box lids. A ballot paper in the wrong box meant it wouldn’t count.

Most of the polling places we visited had no electricity, so as the sun came up across Kenya’s coastal region, operations inside the station became easier. Many voters walked from their villages, some barefoot, and calmly queued for hours for their chance to vote. There were no teams of comfort captains dispatched from the major campaigns to give people food or water to encourage them to stay in line. Food trucks didn’t line the streets outside polling stations. DJs were not blaring music for entertainment. That was Election Day for me in Florida in 2016, but not in Kilifi County.

Polls closed at 6pm and after ballot boxes were properly sealed, a manual count of the Presidential votes began. The polling station’s presiding officer would show the ballot to each of the fifteen party and candidate observers to make sure everyone agreed to the intent of the voter. There were no disputes at the station we stopped in to observe.

After the results were counted, presiding officers would fill out a form, have party and candidate observers sign it, then transmit the results to the constituency tallying center. Thus began the process of gathering all the results from the area. By Wednesday afternoon, the opposition candidate in the presidential race was claiming this process had been hacked and rigged. While in the United States, the candidate who won 3 million more votes still conceded her loss the day after the election, the opposition in Kenya had not agreed to the results even after they were declared official from the election commission late Friday night (and will challenge the results in court).

With Kenya on edge, texts began to trickle in again. “Hey lady, you safe?” “Hope you’re having a great time and staying safe.” “How’s the election observing?”

Yet, the Saturday after the election, I returned to a state of emergency in Charlottesville. And I returned to a country where the President threatens nuclear war over Twitter. Where the press is bullied and shut out if our President doesn’t like what they have to say.

The irony is not lost on me. As Americans, we think we’ve done everything right. The most successful democratic experiment in history, we push for our model to be replicated throughout the world. But right now, we need to be vigilant at home. Vigilant against authoritarianism. Vigilant against white supremacy. Vigilant against voter suppression. What we stand to lose is everything we are.

Bailey Childers was a volunteer international observer with The Carter Center for the 2017 Kenyan presidential elections and ran GOTV for Hillary Clinton’s campaign in Florida in 2016. Follow her on twitter @baileykchilders. The views expressed here are the author’s and do not reflect those of The Carter Center or its election observation mission.

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