Should presidential candidates get state security?

We continue focusing on the events unfolding in the US ahead of the forthcoming elections and reflecting them on what happens here. This week we focus on provision of state security for presidential candidates.

Elections, regardless the position at stake, are an emotional activity and if not handled well the contest can easily get ugly, nasty and risky to lives of contenders. At the moment the major two parties in the US, Republicans and Democrats are in the process of identifying candidates to be nominates for the presidential race.

Two weeks ago, a Donald Trump rally took a dramatic turn when a disturbance broke out as a protester attempted to breach the security buffer. This caused the alert Secret Service agents to jump on stage and form a wall around Trump in a Hollywood movie style. Since then security during Trump’s meetings have been stepped up because of risk of more protests. Apart from that Trump has also made several controversial statements that may make him a target for terrorist attacks and the state has an obligation to protect him.

So far five aspirants in the US elections have received state security including Hilary Clinton who already enjoys state security by nature of office she currently holds. But the question is how is state security allocated? Is it for every candidate is the elections? At what point during the presidential race do candidates qualify for Secret Service protection, and who decides when? Are there any lessons for Malawi to emulate?

A small background is that the provision of state security to presidential candidates was inspired by the assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968. Congress passed a Public Law which added candidates to the list of those deserving around-the-clock security.

For candidates to receive state security they need to apply and meet the criteria. Only viable, publically announced, prominent (as shown by opinion polls) and moneyed contenders need apply. That means less known candidates will have to watch their own backs during campaigns. Some candidates refuse state security because it cramps their style as the men with the “earrings” might stop them from pressing palms with anyone and making impromptu campaign stops.

Once a request is filed, the Secret Service then reviews the candidate's financial and electoral status to see whether he or she qualifies. The guidelines stipulate that, in order to receive protection, a candidate must enjoy "national prominence," receive 10 percent or more of the vote in two consecutive primaries or caucuses, and qualify for federal matching funds in excess of $100,000. (we will look at this in the next article when we focus on campaign funding). In lieu of the matching funds criteria, a candidate can also qualify by having raised more than $2 million in contributions.

Lastly, the candidate must be running for a party that received at least 10 percent of the popular vote in the previous election, which disqualifies candidates from small parties and independents.

The Secret Service has no role in determining who is considered a major candidate. The Secretary of the Homeland Security determines who qualifies as a major candidate and when such protection should commence. This determination is made in consultation with a congressional advisory committee comprised the Speaker of the House, House Minority Whip, Senate Majority Leader, Senate Minority Leader and one additional member chosen by the committee.

In Malawi presidential candidates do not receive state security although in the past there have been incidences whereby youths have been reported to have been hired to disrupt rallies of rivals. Also the incident that happened at Goliati in 2014 whereby violence erupted during a presidential rally should contribute to the debate whether candidates should receive state security in Malawi. What about if that rally was being addressed by another candidate who did not enjoy state security, what could have happened?

With over 54 registered political parties, Malawi also attracts a big number of presidential candidates. It would be a huge task for state to provide security to all the candidates but criteria can be developed, learning from the US, to identify candidates qualifying for state security. We should also bear in mind that the laws provide for annulment of elections if a duly nominated candidate dies on or before polling.