Three ballot papers are a recipe for confusion


Three ballot papers are a recipe for confusion

On May 29, South Africans will for the first time be able to vote for independent candidates at national and provincial level. The process that the Electoral Commission of SA decided on to facilitate this is so complicated that even experts struggle to understand it. WILLEM KEMPEN tries to unravel the knot.


THIRTY years ago, the then Independent Electoral Commission's  biggest challenge with the ballots for the first democratic elections was to get Mangosuthu Buthelezi and the Inkatha Freedom Party listed in time because their participation was only confirmed at the last minute. Consequently, Buthelezi's picture and his party's name were printed on stickers that were added at the bottom of printed ballots.

Since then, a lot of things have changed, the most important of which is that the Constitutional Court ruled in 2020 that it is unconstitutional for someone to be allowed to participate in national or provincial elections only as a member of a political party. As a result, for the first time this year, we can also vote for so-called independent candidates at national and provincial level. (Independent candidates have always been allowed at municipal level.)

Allowing independent candidates is a positive step that bodes well for more democratic participation, but this seemingly simple change has complex practical implications. The basic question is: How do we handle independent candidates in a system that allocates seats based on a party's proportional support and a ranking of candidates on a party list?

This question was fought over between the courts and the political parties in Parliament between 2020 and last year and was finally answered in the Electoral Amendment Act of 2023. This is also the basis for the IEC's decision to use an additional ballot to accommodate independent candidates.

The political parties initially agreed that the process should be as simple as possible, but when millions of voters face three ballot papers for the first time on May 29, many of them — perhaps even most — will not understand what this means.

Even respected political scientists and other pundits struggle to understand the new process or explain it to others. The IEC dedicates considerable space on its website to voter education but does not explain the new system's more complex aspects. There is no broad national communication strategy aimed at the mass of the electorate, and the election is less than three weeks away.

For the first time, each voter will get three ballots on which to exercise their choices, not two as in the past. Two of these are for the national election; the third is for the provincial election.

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

Three things everyone should know

There are three basic things voters need to know when deciding where to make their crosses:

1. You may not draw more than one cross on each ballot.
2. You may draw less than one cross per ballot, in other words only on one or two or even none of the three ballots.
3. You don't have
to consistently vote for the same party or the same independent candidate on the different ballots.

But then…

After this, things get more complicated, and it doesn't help that names for the three ballots are rather confusing.

The old national ballot is replaced by two separate ballots: the National Compensatory Ballot and the Regional Ballot. Both of them are national ballots and each determines how 200 of the National Assembly's 400 seats will be allocated. Finally, there is the Provincial Legislature Ballot.

National Compensatory Ballot:

“Compensatory" doesn't mean it's a less important ballot or that it's trying to compensate for something. In fact, it's the only one of the three ballots that will look the same across all polling stations. ONLY the names of political parties appear on the National Compensatory Ballot; a total of 52 of them are competing for 200 of the 400 seats in the National Assembly. Each will be indicated by the name and abbreviation of the party, a photo of the party leader and the party's logo.

Regional Ballot:

First, “Regional" is also potentially confusing, as it also refers to seats in the National Assembly, albeit measured at a provincial level and with independent candidates also included. On this ballot, political parties AND individual independent candidates compete for the other half of the 400 seats in the National Assembly. Political parties are indicated on the Regional Ballot just as they are on the National Compensatory Ballot, while independent candidates will have their name and photo and the word “Independent" next to their names.

♦ Second, the Regional Ballot's 200 seats are in line with the limit set by the Constitutional Court on the number of seats in the National Assembly that may be contested by independent candidates. Theoretically, as many as 200 independent candidates could end up making it to the National Assembly, or not a single one.

But then it gets rather muddled: In the end, ALL the votes on the two national ballots are added together (with the exception of those for independent candidates). The total of 400 seats are then proportionally allocated to the respective parties. Then a party's provincial seats are deducted on the basis of their support in the Regional Ballot and according to the allowed provincial quota (see the third point below). What remains is the number of “Compensatory" seats to which each party is entitled. (More on this below.)

♦ Third, the Regional Ballot will look different for each province. It will contain ONLY the names of the political parties and independent candidates who qualified in that particular province. Independent candidates may appear on the Regional Ballot from each province where they could collect the required number of signatures or nominations, theoretically up to a maximum of nine provinces, but may only be elected to the National Assembly via one of them. In other words: An independent candidate may not be elected to more than one seat in the National Assembly. An independent candidate may also not run for election elsewhere under the banner of a political party.

♦ Fourth, the number of seats out of 200 that each province may have in the National Assembly is determined by each one's number of REGISTERED VOTERS (NOT the number of voters who turn up at the polls). This means Gauteng will have the most and the Northern Cape the least.

Provincial Legislature Ballot

This one is relatively simple. It's basically the same as the old provincial ballot with which members of the provincial legislatures are appointed, except that independent candidates are now included.

Will voters understand all of this?

Prof Jørgen Elklit is an emeritus professor of political science at Aarhus University in Denmark and has long been involved in South African elections. Among other things, he was involved in the preparations for the 1994 elections and was a member of Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert's task team that investigated the electoral system in 2002-03. Elklit wrote in the Mail & Guardian this week under the headline “2024 elections: The confusion of two ballot papers for the National Assembly":

“It can only confuse voters when attempts to explain the new electoral system claim that the Compensatory Ballot is used to allocate the 200 Compensatory seats and don’t explain how all votes for parties on both ballot papers are added together and that all 400 seats distributed proportionally are based on these numbers. Regional seats are then subtracted, and the remainder becomes the number of Compensatory seats each party is entitled to. It is really a pity that some media have not been able to present this clearly and correctly to the public."

Sorry Prof, but I'm afraid this explanation of yours doesn't help much. At least he also says: If you are confused, you are probably not alone. But it’s comforting to know that the Electoral Amendment Act also directs the Home Affairs Minister to appoint an electoral review panel, which will hopefully suggest a new and better electoral system to be used in 2029 and thereafter."

But for now, this is all we have, and there are other questions as well. For example, the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa points out that independent candidates who get more votes than necessary to get a seat in effect forfeit all those additional votes, while the same is not true of political parties because they accumulate more votes and ultimately benefit through additional seats. It boils down to voters feeling a vote for an independent candidate would be a waste, because such a person cannot win more than one seat.

Yet it is mostly the political parties and not the voters who will suffer the consequences, and they will only begin finding out about them afterwards when the votes are being counted. The courts and perhaps even the Constitutional Court will have their hands full in the weeks and months to come, settling disputes and giving direction.

On how voters will experience all of this on polling day, Vrye Weekblad's contributing editor Piet Croucamp says: “Hopefully most of them will simply look for the name of the party and the face of the leader of their choice, draw their cross without thinking about it further, and then carelessly walk out again."

♦ VWB ♦

BE PART OF THE CONVERSATION: Go to the bottom of this page to share your opinion. We look forward to hearing from you.

Speech Bubbles

To comment on this article, register (it's fast and free) or log in.

First read Vrye Weekblad's Comment Policy before commenting.