A successful voter registration weekend can’t mask the long-term problems of democratic participation

The IEC held the first – and only – voter registration weekend in preparation for the local government election (LGE). In many ways the weekend was a success: over 430 000 people registered to vote for the first time; 91 percent were between the ages of 16 and 29; and 1.7 million people registered to vote over the weekend.

These numbers are impressive by historical standards but they cannot mask the decline in voter registration over the last five years. There are just over 26.2 million registered voters – almost 200 000 fewer than the 2016 election and 550 000 lighter than in 2019.

The percentage of adult South Africans who have registered to vote has fallen to its lowest level since the 2000 LGE, and voter turnout for the 2021 LGE threatens to also drop to levels last seen in 2006.

Voter registration and voter turnout are different processes, and their long-term trends are dependent on different factors. Voter registration relies on a capable and resourced public sector: a registered voter needs identity documents and a formal residential address.

The IEC is primarily responsible for maintaining the voters roll but the Department of Home Affairs also plays a critical role. In an indirect way, the successes – or failures – of many other government departments will also play their part. If a potential voter receives basic services, housing and a safe environment, if they have access to jobs, education and healthcare, if they live securely and not as migrant labour, with the resources and knowledge to be active citizens, then they are likely to register to vote and to vote.

Voter turnout is also reliant on an educated and empowered citizenry, but it needs political parties and candidates that capture the imagination. Turnout for the 2019 national / provincial election (NPE) was lower by almost a million voters compared with 2014 – and this is before the spectre of COVID and national lockdowns.

Recent by-election data suggest that voter turnout for 2021 could fall by a similar margin compared with 2016, or even further. The turnout of registered voters is still likely to exceed the turnout in the 2000 and 2006 LGEs but will almost certainly miss the high bar set in 2011 and 2016.

 

Voter registration has fallen to historical lows

While the number of registered voters has fallen by almost 200 000 since 2016, the number of South Africans older than 18 (potential voters) has increased by 4 million according to the StatsSA Mid-Year Population Estimates.

Between 2004 and 2016 the percentage of over-18s that was registered to vote ranged from 70 percent to 76 percent, peaking in 2009 at 75.5 percent. In 2019, however, the figure fell to 68.5 percent and it currently stands at 65.3 percent, even lower than the 2000 registration numbers.

The IEC’s work has been complicated by a 2015 Constitutional Court ruling, later clarified in 2016, that registered voters needed a physical address as part of their registration. This ruling compelled the IEC to reregister voters without a complete address, and it explains why the voter registration process has focused so heavily on reregistering voters since 20126. A case in point: the September registration weekend registered the details of 1.7 million voters but barely a quarter of these were new registrations.

It is clear from the voter registration numbers since 2016 that new registrations have suffered. The creation of an online registration portal has not yet contributed to a substantial increase in registrations and may be inaccessible to most voters, creating a greater digital divide between poor and rich South Africans.

 

Covid and the Political Party Funding Act join voter apathy to depress turnout

It is difficult to tease out the long-term trends in voter turnout. Turnout for NPEs has been considerably higher than for LGEs since 2000 but the gap has narrowed in recent elections. National turnout peaked in 2009 at 77.3 percent before falling to 73.5 percent in 2014 and 66.1 percent in 2019 – a precipitous fall of seven percentage points and the lowest turnout ever for an NPE. At the same time turnout in local elections was increasing, from 48.4 percent in 2006 to 57.6 percent in 2011 and 57.9 percent in 2016.

Part of the increase in voter turnout at the local level has been the growing importance of local government to political parties and voters alike. Voters have realised the critical role that basic service delivery plays in their lives and political parties have devoted more resources to local government campaigns.

The growth in voter registration between 2000 and 2016 has also contributed to higher voter turnout and it is possible that internal migration has decreased since 2011, resulting in more voters who are eligible to vote in their municipalities.

The sharp fall in turnout in 2019 cannot be ignored, however. Almost a million fewer people voted in 2019 compared with 2014 and there is a good chance that turnout will fall by at least the same amount in 2021 compared with 2016. Reputable polls (when they occur) confirm that an increasing share of South Africans are uninspired by their voting options and have decreasing levels of confidence in major political leaders.

In addition to growing voter apathy the effects of COVID-related lockdowns have had a clear effect on voter turnout. Turnout for by-elections since November 2020 has been significantly lower than for by-elections held between 2016 and 2019. Political parties have been limited in their ability to campaign in-person and most of them have not made effective use of online tools. Voters have stayed away from the polls due to apathy, health concerns, and reduced communication from political parties.

Some 15.3 million people voted in 2016. If the number of voters in 2021 falls to 14 million people or lower then voter turnout will have regressed to 2006 levels or worse, depending on the measure.

As a percentage of registered voters, voter turnout would fall to 53.4 percent, still better than 2006’s figure, but the percentage of over-18s who vote would fall below 35 percent, nearing the 31.6 percent achieved in 2000.

 

Improving voter participation

Voter participation in the 2021 LGE will be the lowest since at least 2011 while voter registration may be the worst it has ever been in our democracy. The IEC ought to shoulder much of the blame for the poor registration numbers but others are also at fault. The Department of Home Affairs (DHA), the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (CoGTA), and National Treasury must all be included in a post-election review of what has gone wrong with the process.

Has the IEC been significantly underfunded by Treasury and therefore unable to fulfil its mandate? Could the DHA share more of the administrative burden of voter registration? In some countries all citizens are automatically placed on the voters roll when their birth is registered. That would solve the initial problem of expanding the voters roll but would not guarantee that adult voters are registered correctly for provincial or municipal elections.

Reversing the registration declines of the last 5-10 years is necessary but not sufficient to increase voting numbers on election day. If existing parties continue to underwhelm and new parties find it difficult to register and campaign, voters will boycott the polls in increasing numbers.

Less than 35 percent of adult South Africans are expected to vote in the 2021 LGE. If we cannot improve on this number then our electoral outcomes will be more heavily scrutinised, and claims of free and fair elections will continue to be questioned.

Written by Paul Berkowitz

September 27, 2021

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