South Africa is among relatively few African countries that hold regular democratic elections with high levels of integrity, enabling citizens to choose their government. Since democracy in 1994, its elections have been consistently adjudged legitimate, free and fair.
But there may be trouble on the horizon. The Electoral Commission of South Africa, the body responsible for municipal, provincial and national elections, is struggling to ensure the integrity of the voters’ roll for the 2019 polls. The elections – for the national and nine provincial legislatures – are scheduled for May.
It has been more than two and a half years since the Constitutional Court ordered the commission to ensure that all registered voters and candidates have verifiable residential addresses. To date, this hasn’t been done.
The commission was ordered to develop a list that captures “sufficient particularities of the voter’s address” for all voters by June 2018. This would enable voters to cast ballots only in the voting districts where they ordinarily live.
The commission’s failure to ensure a credible voters’ roll threatens to undo its legacy of conducting internationally acclaimed elections.
Even though the court has since acceded to the commission’s request to extend the deadline – it’s now November 30, 2019, which is after the elections – it has a duty to ensure that the elections are legitimate despite the problems with the voters’ roll.
This will require concerted efforts by all political parties and other election stakeholders. They will need to use the pre-election registration weekends set aside by the commission for 2019 to guarantee that only those eligible to vote do so.
In addition, to retain public confidence in its credentials as an independent body, the commission needs to do all it can to remove doubts and suspicions regarding the eligibility of voters and candidates. The need for it to ensure – as far as possible – that the largest number of registered voters are legitimate, with traceable physical addresses, cannot be overemphasised.
Why verifiable addresses matter
Electoral systems rest largely on verifiable election registers. These include voter and candidate lists. Verifiable voters’ credentials ensure that only those who are entitled to vote do so.
A voters’ roll is also a crucial mechanism for those, like political parties and election monitors or observers, who seek to verify who qualifies to vote. A lack of verifiable addresses suggests a lack of transparency in the electoral system, raising suspicions and doubts.
South Africa’s voting population changes every five years as the number of registered voters increases. Not knowing the extent of the increase, and where to target first-time voters, poses a problem for political parties during campaigning. It would also be difficult to know how many polling stations to expect in their voting districts.
If a voter’s residential addresses, or other means of determining where they live, cannot be verified, they may be prevented from voting. This denies them the right to choose their leaders or to run for office. Alternatively, they may be allowed to vote through an onerous process that relies on presiding officers’ discretion. This isn’t ideal and is usually viewed with suspicion by duly registered voters.
Another problem is that ineligible people might vote. And others might vote outside of their voting districts, unfairly influencing the outcome. This can undermine the legitimacy of elections.
These hitches and issues are the reason that the Constitutional Court’s 2016 judgment was so welcome.
Lessons from the past
The court’s ruling came after by-elections in Tlokwe, or Potchefstroom, a small town in the country’s North West province, were annulled by the Electoral Court in 2013. The annulment followed complaints that the by-elections were not free and fair.
Opposition parties accused the governing African National Congress of bussing in voters from outside the area – which could be done because verifiable addresses were absent from the voters’ roll.
The commission’s failure to comply with the court order to fix the problem raises questions about its preparedness to conduct next year’s crucial elections. There are real fears that the elections might be compromised somehow. This has serious implications for South Africa’s electoral democracy.
The commission has argued that having to record all registered voters’ addresses entails enormous logistical problems and costs. It has pointed out that some addresses, in a conventional sense, were simply not available in populous rural and urban areas that have no house numbers and street names.
It has also contended that making the capturing of addresses obligatory would result in long queues forming outside voting stations on election day.
The commission has been given an extended deadline to November next year. Nevertheless, it shouldn’t wait that long to act. After all, the credibility of the voters’ roll has international implications. That’s because the management and quality assurance of national elections are no longer the monopoly of individual states.
South Africa must also comply with the African Union’s Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance and its Principles Governing Elections. Both place emphasis on the credibility of electoral infrastructure, including voters’ rolls.
Salvaging the situation
Despite problems with its voters’ roll, South Africa remains a beacon of electoral hope and democracy. Its status as a country that upholds international election management best practices is envied.
The 2019 national elections may still retain a semblance of fair representation in public participation; based on other factors such as voter participation, free political campaigning, and the tolerance of divergent political views and parties.
The commission’s ongoing discussions and mediation efforts with all election stakeholders through the political party liaison committees and civil society organisations are crucial to addressing any potential problems.
A sustainable strategy is to engage relevant civil society bodies to provide continuous voter education long before major elections. This will help ensure addresses are captured correctly in the voters roll.