Elections 2024: Low voter turnout must be fixed

Glitches and slow queues need to be seen in light of IEC’s budget cuts

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Across the country South Africans waited in long queues to vote, such as in Khayelitsha, where this photo was taken. Photo: Ashraf Hendricks

Most adult South Africans didn’t vote last Wednesday. There are likely many reasons for this but if we don’t fix it, our constitutional democracy will become increasingly imperilled. Populist, anti-democratic parties benefited the most from the low turnout, especially MK.

So what proportion of adult South Africans actually voted?

Estimating the population over 18 in South Africa isn’t easy. The 2022 census was poorly conducted. So I have used the Thembisa HIV model numbers; they are meticulously estimated. According to Thembisa, there are nearly 43-million South Africans over 18. Let’s be conservative and round that down to 42-million. About 16.3-million people voted, 59% of the 27.8-million registered voters, but less than 40% of the eligible voting population.

This was the lowest percentage turnout to national elections since South Africa became democratic. You have to go back to 2004 to find a national election in which fewer people voted, but there were 13-million fewer adults then.

There are probably many reasons for the decline in the number of people voting, but what unequivocally needs to be addressed before the next election is the voting process itself.

In 1994, the long queues were symbolic of South Africans’ commitment to democracy. In 2024, the long queues are no longer inspiring; they’re symbolic of incompetence. Videos of people standing in snaking queues after 9pm indicate something went terribly wrong. Voting should take half an hour at the very most. On Thursday it rained in Cape Town. If the rain had come a day earlier fewer people would have bothered queuing and the election results could have been very different. Weather should not affect the broad results of elections.

I’m most familiar with the venue where I voted, so I’ll describe the shambles. I got there at 6:45am. I doubt there were more than 200 people in front of me. I voted well over four hours later. The queue would move a little, then stop for half an hour or so, and this happened several times. I can only think this was caused by glitches in the voter management devices, a technology which simply seemed unnecessary. The IEC official in charge was out of her depth. She barked incoherent orders at voters and staff. Her staff members bad-mouthed her to frustrated voters in line, which provided some distraction. (There are also reports of many IEC officials displaying immense patience, working diligently for long hours and going the extra mile to help voters.)

Similar scenes seemed to occur across the country.

The IEC is officially responsible for all this but it is too simple to blame the IEC. Last year My Vote Counts warned that the IEC was being underfunded. The IEC had warned Parliament that it was being underfunded.

On Friday the Budget Justice Coalition wrote scathingly of the way the IEC has been underfunded by Treasury: “National Treasury fails to address how the IEC had received below inflationary budget allocations leading up to this election, amounting to a real cut of approximately 2% each year over the past three years. Worse, since 2018/19, the IEC’s funding has been increased by 2.71% - well below the Consumer Price Index inflation rate over the same period of 4.98%. … Going back to 2018, the cabinet approved budget reductions of R80.6 million in 2018/19, R85.6 million in 2019/20 and R90 million in 2020/21, which included reductions in transfer payments to the Electoral Commission. There are further reductions in budget allocations to the IEC over the medium-term, with a real cut proposed for 2024/2025.”

With more and better-trained staff, and more booths, busy polling stations could have divided their voter lists into more queues based on surname, and sped up voting dramatically. Special voting should be strongly encouraged too; pretty much everyone over 50, pregnant women, and people with disabilities should have voted before election day. In fact simply consider making the election three days, with the last day being a public holiday so that working people can vote.

The regional ballot was also an issue. While it was introduced as a measure to allow independent candidates to stand, it is thoroughly confusing. It likely also slowed down the voting process.

Not only does the voting process have to be easier, but much more has to be done to get voters registered. More voter registration weekends are needed. Perhaps voter registration events can be linked to social grant collection, opening of bank accounts and ID book collection. Perhaps too there should be incentives to register, such as some free cell phone data. Of course for that the IEC needs a lot more money.

But one must also have some sympathy for the Treasury for the IEC’s funding cuts; South Africa’s fiscus has been ruined by mass corruption since 2009. Ironically the man most responsible for that, Jacob Zuma, has the most to celebrate after Wednesday’s election.

A few observations

  • That the ANC got hammered percentage-wise is clear. The ANC’s results are even worse if you look at the number of votes: more than 10-million in 2019 compared to less than 6.5-million in 2024.
  • Though the adult population has grown by more than 3-million, the ANC in 2019 got only slightly fewer votes than the ANC plus MK plus EFF in 2024. So we should not overestimate the popularity of MK and the EFF.
  • MK got nearly 15% of the vote in 2024, but less than 6% of the eligible population voted for Zuma’s party.
  • The DA lost 100,000 votes between 2019 and 2024, despite increasing its share of the national vote by a percentage point. Mmusi Maimane lost his leadership of the party because of the poor 2019 result. Will John Steenhuisen and Helen Zille be held accountable for what could be argued is an even worse result in 2024?
TOPICS:  Elections 2024

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