South Africa: The voters' roll

Updated March 2011

A single national common voters' roll is compiled and maintained by the Chief Electoral Officer; the law implies, but does not explicitly state, that the voters' roll should be continuously updated, but this has been the reading of the law and the practice of the IEC since the roll was first compiled in 1998/9 (Electoral Act 1998, 5; the eligibility requirements for registration on the voters' roll are discussed in Voter registration, as are the difficulties that presented themselves in the registration process). The law requires that the national voters' roll, as it stands at that particular time, must always be available for inspection at the IEC's head office and specifies that the Chief Electoral Officer must be able to supply a certified copy of an extract or a segment of it to anyone who pays the fee prescribed; in the case of a request from a political party the Chief Electoral Officer must also include the addresses of the registered voters (Electoral Act 1998, 16). Any person may lodge an objection with the IEC to the exclusion of a person, the inclusion of a person or to the details of registration of a person and must also serve notice to the person whose inclusion or omission is objected to (Electoral Act 1998, 15(1),(2)). The IEC must make a decision on the matter and notify the objector, the chief electoral officer and the person affected by the objection within 14 days (Electoral Act 1998, 15(3)).

On the proclamation of an election day the national common voters' roll that exists on that day (but see below) is used for that election; effectively the roll is "frozen" (whatever changes to a voter's registration status the IEC captures after that date may not be entered onto the roll until after the election (Electoral Act 1998, 24(1); see also Setting election dates). Between the proclamation of an election and final publication of the certified voters' roll (the date of which is fixed in terms of section 20 of the Electoral Act 1998) the IEC engages in an intense scrutiny of the national common voters' roll to eliminate fraudulent, duplicate and deceased voters. The national common voters' roll or its segments, once certified to be used for a particular election, must be published by making it available at the IEC's head office, provincial offices and at each municipality where that election is taking place (Electoral Act 1998, 24).

General registration and the voters' roll of the 1999 election

To compile the initial national common voters' roll the IEC conducted a general registration of voters in 1998/9 and subsequently, in anticipation of the conduct of each specific election, general registration drives to update the voters' roll and to register voters that were eligible but not yet registered; the update drives followed the same procedure as the first general registration. In preparation for the first general registration the country was divided into 14 500 voting districts, each with a single polling station that also served during the general registration as registration centre for the voting district; after this all municipal offices were equipped as permanently functioning registration centres to undertake continuous voter registration (EISA 1998, 2; see "Voting districts" in Delimitation of constituencies and voting districts for details).

In the run up to the 2 June 1999 National Assembly and provincial legislature elections general registration began in five provinces between 27-29 November 1998, followed by registration in the other four from 3-5 December 1998, with subsequent drives on 29-31 January and 5-7 March 1999 and registration finally closed on 15 March with an estimated 80% of eligible voters captured on the national common voters' roll (Jones 1999, 19, 71, 115). Though this is not explicitly required in law, the national common voters' roll was (and still is at the time of writing) a single electronic database accessible electronically to, and updateable from, all voter registration centres, whether permanent, such as municipal offices for continuous update, or episodic, such as polling stations during general registration drives (and also, of course, to polling stations on election day).

The closing of the national common voters' roll on the 15 March 1999, enabled by section 14 (2) of the Electoral Act 1998, was so that the IEC could publish the roll and make it available for public scrutiny. The law requires that "the provincial and municipal segments of the voters' roll must be available for inspection at the times and venues mentioned in a notice published by the chief electoral officer in the Government Gazette; the IEC interpreted the law's requirements in the most maximal way and made the roll as available as the law and circumstances permitted (Electoral Act 1998,16 (1)).

The voters' roll subsequent to the 1999 election

To maintain the national voters' roll a general registration was conducted on the weekend of 16-17 September 2000 prior to the 5 December 2000 municipal elections (IEC 2000, 32). Though 1.5 million transactions were undertaken during the weekend drive and an estimated 95% of newly eligible young people were registered, the IEC began to research ways in which registration could be made more accessible to eligible voters (IEC 2000, 32, 33, 35, 36). Prior to the 14 April 2004 National Assembly and provincial legislature elections two general registration weekends were held on 8 and 9 November 2003 and 24 and 25 January 2004 and the number of new voters added to the roll since the 1999 elections was about 2.5 million (IEC 2004, 26, 28). In preparation for the local government elections that took place on 1 March 2006 general registration drives were held on 3 September 2005 and on 19 and 20 November 2005 and 300 031 additional voters were added to the national voters roll since the 2004 elections (IEC 2006, 14, 19, 23). Similarly, general registrations were held on the weekends of 8 and 9 November 2008 and 7 and 8 February 2009 in anticipation of the National Assembly and provincial legislature elections that were held on 22 April 2009; about 1.2 million voters were added to the national voters' roll (IEC 2009, 19, 20, 22). Finally, since local government elections were due in mid 2011, a general registration of voters was conducted on 5 and 6 Feb 2011 from 08:00-17:00 in which 1.4 million transactions were made and 534 016 additions were added to the national common voters' roll; a second general registration was set for 5 and 6 Mar 2011 (IEC 2011).

Despite the fact that the national common voters' roll is continuously updated, that prospective voters may register and registered voters who have moved house may reregister on any working day at the nearest municipal office, it is during general registrations that most changes to the voters' roll are made. The IEC's report of 2000 (35, 36) suggested ways in which the continuous voter registration process might be strengthened, including proxy registration, postal registration and online (=Internet) registration, but no more of these suggestions were heard, presumably because in all of these possibilities no way could be found to eliminate fraudulent registration and the compromising of the integrity of the voters' roll. However the adoption of a single national common voters' roll that was electronic in form, as well as the progress of technology, did make it possible from the run up to the 2009 onwards for anyone to access the voters' roll and check the status of registration of anyone: An enquirer could send an SMS (for a small fee), call a toll-free (from a landline) or access a page on the IEC's website; by supplying any ID number anyone could discover what registration status of the holder of that particular ID number was and, if the holder was registered, at which polling station (and also exactly where that polling station was).


JONES, B (ed), 1999 South African Election Update, November 1998 - June 1999, EISA, Johannesburg.

ELECTORAL ACT 73 1998, includes amendments of 2000 and 2003, [www] [PDF document, opens new window] (accessed 7 Feb 2011).

INDEPENDENT ELECTORAL COMMISSION (IEC) 2000 Report: Municipal elections, 5 december 2000, [www] [PDF document, opens new window] (accessed 14 Feb 2011).

INDEPENDENT ELECTORAL COMMISSION (IEC) 2004 Report on the National and Provincial Elections 14 April 2004, [www] [PDF document, opens new window] (accessed 14 Feb 2011).

INDEPENDENT ELECTORAL COMMISSION (IEC) 2006 2006 Municipal Elections Report, [www] [PDF document, opens new window] (accessed 14 Feb 2011).

INDEPENDENT ELECTORAL COMMISSION (IEC) 2006 Report: National and Provincial Elections, 22 April 2009, [www] [PDF document, opens new window] (accessed 14 Feb 2011).

INDEPENDENT ELECTORAL COMMISSION (IEC) 2011 "IEC very pleased with results of the voter registration weekend", 9 February, , [www] [opens new window] (accessed 14 Feb 2011).