Long Lines & Delays – Considering the 2024 South African Elections

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The 2024 South African National and Provincial elections on 29 May were held under a slightly revised electoral system with amended electoral laws – the most significant of which was the invalidation of the original Electoral Act by the Constitutional Court in 2020. The change in system and attendant amended laws now allow for independent candidates to contest for seats in the National Assembly or for Provincial legislatures, which was previously contested exclusively by political parties off closed party lists in a proportional representation system.

Amongst other less rigorous but nevertheless impactful amendments, was an amendment to Section 24A of the Electoral Matters Amendment Act restricting voters to voting only at designated polling where they are registered. EISA has previously written an explainer on the revised electoral system as well as the new rules.

South Africa’s current electoral system of pure proportional representation does not have constituencies/ districts in the traditional sense of the word as may be found in countries such as Kenya, Zimbabwe and the United Kingdom. The proportional system has several advantages – including matching as closely as possible the percentage of votes cast to the number of seats won by a party. There are no “wasted” votes and the system is also associated with better inclusion and diversity – leading to increased gender, racial and minority opinion representation. These advantages are more difficult to achieve in the first pass the post (FPTP) systems, and in many instances requiring reserved, designated and set-aside seats to inculcate diversity and inclusivity.

South Africa’s 400 National Assembly seats, under the new electoral system for 2024, designates 200 of the 400 National Assembly seats (called National Compensatory seats) for the entire country being regarded as one district/constituency. For these 200 hundred seats, it does not matter where in the country a voter casts their vote. The country effectively places all votes into a single “pot.”

The remaining 200 of the 400 seats in the National Assembly, known as the Regional to National seats, are calculated based on the support received from different region’s (Provinces). The regions are effectively (multi-member) districts, where different regions send representatives to Parliament. As such, each region (province) is effectively one constituency. It would therefore not matter where within a Province a voter casts a ballot, so long as the voter casts a vote within the province in which they are registered. Regardless of where in the province the voter voting, the votes all go into the same “pot” when calculating the party/ Independent candidates seat composition for the region’s (province) share of seats in the National Assembly. Thus, a voter ought to be permitted to cast their vote on a regional ballot, irrespective of where in the province they might be. The third ballot determines the composition of the provincial legislature and for precisely the same reasons, voters ought to receive a ballot to vote for representatives for the Provincial legislature so long as they are at a voting station within their province.

Reason for Changes in the Law                                                                                                                                         Allegations of voters attempting to vote, or voting twice in the 2019 elections were given significant media attention and caused consternation amongst political parties. Based on the fears that votes for their parties might be diluted by people casting votes twice for other parties, and on the advice of the IEC, the Electoral Matters Amendment Act amended Section 24A to compel voters to vote only at the designated voting station where they are registered. However, a report written by Statistics South Africa using empirical evidence from the 2019 elections found that the risk of double voting was negligible. In addition, the introduction of Voter Management Devices (VMD) would have reduced the risks of double voting further, as the VMD records voting activities in real time. However, since the VMD’s frequently malfunctioned, this risk mitigation strategy proved moot and the risk of double voting remained. The safeguards against this, of marking voters with indelible ink, was also found during the 2019 national elections and the 2021 local elections to be of variable and inconsistent quality, which was erasable. This bolstered the IEC’s contention that the only safeguard was to ensure that voters could only vote at the voting station where they are registered.           

The amendment of Section 24A to compel voters to vote only where they are registered was therefore passed by political parties in Parliament, rather than by the IEC. However, throughout the consultation process, the IEC expressed support for this amendment when it should have advised against it, due to its disenfranchising effect. The basis of the IEC’s support for this amendment was that the system was “abused”, in that voters who could vote anywhere, were “shopping for (shorter) queues”, created a glut of voters at some voting stations, precipitating shortages of voting materials and causing additional and unnecessary administrative burdens in managing the elections.

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As day turns to dusk, students await their turn to vote amid reports of voters waiting over 6 hours to vote at this voting station at the University of the Witwatersrand

What we value as a Society                                                                                                                                                         Voting processes should be designed, administratively and logistically with the greatest ease and widest enfranchisement, with voters in mind. Elections are fundamentally about voters and their interests, concerns and convenience, rather than that of the contestants and parties, or facilitators and managers. Voting processes too, should be designed in ways that do not unnecessarily and needlessly constrain voters. This amendment compounded the problem of long queues when combined with failing VMD’s. Voters who might have gone to other voting stations with less problems, and shorter queues were compelled to remain at voting stations which had long queues. 

Application to notify IEC of intention to vote elsewhere                                                                                                             For its part, the IEC referred to the provision in the law which states that voters are eligible to apply in advance for notice to vote at a voting station where they are not registered. In this case, this was twelve days before the election day. Though this notice was given, many voters appeared not to know about the change in the law, nor were they adequately informed due to insufficient awareness of the notice period to apply for voting elsewhere. This is in part due to the absence of widespread voter education due to the IEC’s constrained budget and the lack of adequate preparatory time. Although the National Treasury denies that the IEC’s budget was cut. The final legislation settling all aspects of the elections was settled less than a year before the election date, leaving limited time for adequate preparation. 

In the revised electoral system South Africa used for 2024, the entire country was designated as a single district/constituency for 200 National Assembly Compensatory seats, while each one of the nine provinces designated as a district/constituency of its own for an additional 200 Regional seats for representation at National level. Historically, voters could cast ballots at any station nationwide for the national ballot, and in addition on the provincial ballot if they were at any voting station within the province where they are registered. The amendment of S24 A restricted this, citing concerns about election logistics and planning, and overall election integrity. While this may have alleviated possible election planning, logistics and administration problems for the IEC, it simultaneously served to complicate voting logistics for voters and reduced accessibility, especially for transient populations or those facing long queues or other practical problems that force them to be elsewhere other than the voting stations where they are registered – leading to potential disenfranchisement, especially for rural and less affluent citizens lacking resources. The African Union Election Observation Mission (AUEOM) and other civil society observers have called for an increase in the number of voting stations to alleviate congestion and ensure voting accessibility and wider enfranchisement.

The AUEOM’s preliminary statement suggests that the IEC should consider “increasing the number of voting stations to avoid the long queues witnessed in some voting centres, which lead to voter fatigue and late voter processing and counting.” EISA’s preliminary statement noted how “the amendments regarding Section 24(a) brought challenges and ambiguities on election day.” EISA also noted that of the one hundred and ninety-one (191) voting stations that its observer mission attended and observed, 18% of voters were turned away from voting stations for a variety of reasons – including not being registered. Majority of voters from among the 18% who were turned away from EISA’s observations, two thirds (66.7%) were turned away for being at the “wrong” voting station due to the amendment of S24(A). While there may have been legitimate reasons for voters being turned away, this has effectively resulted in the disenfranchisement of a significant number of aspirant voters. Administrative, regulatory, logistical and infrastructural challenges cannot be addressed at the expense of facilitating and extending the franchise as deeply, widely and conveniently as possible.

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The South African Elections Weekly Briefs are produced through a partnership between The Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa, Media Monitoring Africa and the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. The purpose of the partnership interventions is to strengthen peaceful and inclusive participatory electoral processes in South Africa.