01/03/2008 05:27 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Believing the Vote: On Electoral Faith in Kenya and Closer to Home

As we come within mere hours of when the first Iowans will trudge into their caucus sites, the post-election horror engulfing Kenya puts the American presidential contest in sharp relief. The latest reports have upwards of 300 citizens killed. Yesterday"s death-by-fire of 50 or so huddled in an Assemblies of God church near the Great Rift Valley city of Eldoret horrifyingly raises the specter of the 1994 Rwandan massacre of thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in the Catholic Church at Nyarubuye.

The Kenya violence, as you might know, is fueled by anger over a flawed presidential contest that resulted in the tenuous reelection of Mwai Kibaki. President Kibaki is a Kikuyu, the ethnic grouping that serves as Kenya's elite; importantly, Kenya's first post-independence leader Jomo Kenyatta was Kikuyu. Kibaki's main challenger, businessman Raila Odinga, is Luo. And the Rift Valley church attackers reportedly included a number of Kalenjin; former President Daniel Arap Moi is Kalenjin and, under his presidency, that grouping was among Kenya's most-favored peoples.

Sure, Kenya's deeply-carved ethnic fault lines were no doubt the tinder for this conflagration. But the match was the suspicion that Friday's election was less than free, fair, and deserving of honest faith.

Early-fall independent polling had the challenger Odinga with a substantial lead over the sitting president. Kibaki looked to be in serious trouble, destined to be the detritus of the creative destruction wrought by one of Africa's healthiest democracies. And as election night wore on, Odinga's lead looked insurmountable; one official tally had Odinga with 56% of the vote to Kibaki's 37%. So when Kenya's election commission first kept silent on the race's official victor and later anointed Kibaki, the country exploded.

The violence that that dearth of faith has unleashed is truly terrifying. I can recall being in the reasonably peaceful and ordered Kenya a decade ago, just before the multi-party elections of 1997. Even with my then-considerable ignorance of Kenyan politics, I was struck by the pride of friends there in the vigorous but democratic way that contest was proceeding. Today, from this distance, Kenya looks to be a far different place -- in the words of the nation's leading newspapers, a "burnt-out, smouldering ruin"; those papers have joined together in the last several hours to issue a plaintive wail to "save our beloved country."

Some 8,000 miles away in Iowa, I imagine that right now American voters are bundling up and grabbing a last meal before heading out to their local school, library, or city hall to stand and be counted. Iowa's caucuses are notably transparent - heck, the way this nomination process works, on the Democratic side at least, every last one of your neighbors and every visiting reporter can see if you're a Clinton man or Kucinich woman. And for added security, (and, I'm tempted to add, "for better or for worse") Wolf Blitzer announced on CNN this morning that his network would be conducting "entrance polling," tallying the choices of loose-lipped Des Moinesians and Davenportites as they find their way into their caucus sites.

But when it comes to the general elections in November, our state-by-state patchwork of voting traditions and procedures shares more with the Kenyan process than we'd perhaps like to admit. The federal agency charged by the Help America Vote Act with overseeing U.S. elections, the Election Assistance Commission, is a rather toothless beast. In 2008, not much separates us from the faith-challenging election debacle of 2000.

Back in the summer of 2001, I had the chance to spend a few days in a place on the whole other side of the African continent from Kenya -- the town of Dixcove, Ghana. The past winter, and after decades of military coups, New Patriotic Party (NPP) candidate John Kufuor had defeated the hand-picked successor to the then-President Jerry Rawlings of the National Democratic Congress (NDC), in a widely-praised and universally-accepted election. As I walked the streets of tiny Dixcove, I suddenly found myself deep in the middle of a spirited political parade. I scrambled out of the way, and headed up to the grounds of Fort Metal Cross, overlooking the town. I sat down on the steps next to a fort employee, and asked, "what was that all about?!" It was a rally and celebration, he said, by the local branch of either the NPP or the NDC, though I honestly can't remember which.

What's the difference between the National Democratic Congress and the New Patriotic Party I asked? I remember quite well his wide smile. The difference? The difference, he said, is that they are two different parties, each with an honest shot at winning elections. And, in Ghana at the dawn of the 21st century, that alone was reason enough for celebration.

Happy caucus day.