The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on every facet of society. From economic and job losses, to cancelation of sporting events and major conferences, and many plans individual had for themselves. The pandemic has forced individuals and institutions to adapt to new ways of living and operating, as most of the world has come under some or other form of lockdown restrictions, that have made traditional gatherings and engagements seem obsolete. Those that had long resisted the use of technology in their operations have increasingly come to realise that there is no alternative to digitisation.
Like many institutions, South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) might be forced to finally embrace technology in fulfilling its constitutional mandate. The pandemic outbreak and subsequent lockdown restrictions in South Africa have already seen 37 by-elections postponed, and the 2021 local government elections are at the risk of being postponed. Addressing the Portfolio Committee on Home Affairs in April, IEC Head Sy Mamabolo, stated that their calendar schedule in preparation for next year’s local elections is already behind schedule. With uncertainty over the discovery of a coronavirus vaccine, Mamabolo added that this may be an ideal opportunity to finalise policy discussions about an online voting process in South Africa. With the pandemic predicted to be with us for a while until a vaccine is developed, and having already altered the way we do things and engage socially, traditional election campaigning and voting may have to follow suit and adapt to these new ways; and it may very well start with the 2021 local government elections.
For a while now, electronic voting has been resisted by political parties. In October 2018, IEC deputy CEO, Nomsa Masuku, stated that there was no political will to embrace electronic voting in South Africa. She is of the view that electronic voting would ensure the safeguarding of ballot boxes and quick turnaround on election results. However, there is general scepticism about the integrity of online voting, as political parties themselves have been against the use of technology in their own internal elections. One would recall the African National Congress’s (ANC) Elective Conference in 2007, where delegates rejected the use of the electronic voting systems, owing to fears of manipulation and tampering.
Democratic Alliance’s (DA) Mbali Ntuli, who is a candidate for the party’s top leadership position, has recently raised concerns over the decision to hold the party’s leadership elections online, stating that “The security of the voting process and full participation at congress is fundamental to its integrity and legitimacy”. As she stressed, “There is no guarantee that the approved delegates will be the ones who will be voting or participating in a virtual congress. Nobody can guarantee that a delegate cannot give his or her access codes or log in passwords to someone else to vote or partake on his or her behalf”.
Fears of tampering and rigging aside, how would electronic voting alter the country’s political landscape? Online voting might lead to an increased voter turnout, especially amongst the youth, who have previously stayed away from voting stations, thus missing the opportunity to participate in a process that is responsible for the political leadership entrusted with making decisions that have an impact on their lives. However, that could change if they could have the allowance to spend a few minutes of their time in a virtual voting booth on their mobile phones.
According to the 2019 Digital report by Hootsuite, there are 23 million active users on social media platforms in South Africa. This statistic is all the more significant given that 27% of those users are between the ages of 18 and 24, and 33% between 25 and 34. Thus, the report suggests, 60% of social media users are between 18 and 34. According to the IEC, 21% of voters registered were under 30. In the 2019 general elections, only 65,9% of the registered electorate turned up at voting booths, which was 8% lower than what was recorded in 2014. It was the lowest recorded percentage since the democratic elections in 1994. Statistics from the IEC showed that in 2019, 6 million of young people eligible to vote did not register and more stayed away on voting day. A lot of analysts speculated on the reason for the low turnout of young people from voter fatigue, apathy, and lack of trust in the major political parties.
Young people are the most affected by the socio-economic circumstances the country is currently faced with, from high unemployment to high levels of poverty. It might thus be opportune to ensure that the country finds ways of getting them involved in processes of determining their future, and that would entail a concerted effort to educate them on the importance of participating in democratic discourses and going to vote. Not that they are not aware or ignorant on the importance of politics and voting. Online and electronic voting is not the panacea to ensuring mass participation in democratic processes; however, it will surely represent a positive step towards deepening participatory democracy.
Written by Calvin Matlou