South Africa has to change how its elections work – here are 9 possible scenarios

 ·23 Jul 2020

The Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) presented a number of possible electoral changes to parliament on Wednesday (22 July), including a move to a different type of ‘winner’ system.

The presentation follows a June Constitutional Court judgement which found that the country’s Electoral Act is unconstitutional as it does not provide for adult citizens to be elected to the National and Provincial Legislatures as independent candidates.

The Electoral Act 73 of 1998 currently only allows political parties to contest in the country’s national and provincial elections.

IEC chief executive officer Sy Mamabolo said that it would ultimately be up to the country’s lawmakers on which system they choose to follow.

He added that there are two main families of electoral systems in the world – proportional and pluralist, or majoritarian systems. In other nomenclature these are known as single-winner systems or multi-winner (multi-member) systems, he said.

“All single-winner systems are, by definition, winner-take-all. Multi-winner systems may be proportional or winner-take-all,” he said.

However, he noted that between these two broad families of systems, ‘mixed systems’ have begun to emerge.

“Sometimes it makes sense to elect just one person in instances where there is a single position,” he said.  “However, when electing a legislative body, there is a real decision to make between using single-winner and multi-winner districts.

“(This means the) choice of electoral system has profound consequences.”

Mamabolo said that some of the characteristics of multi-winner systems include:

  • Larger and more populous electoral base;
  • Electoral base contested by multiple parties and candidates;
  • Legislatures that more proportionately reflect voters’ political preferences;
  • Reinforces multi-party democracy rather than single majority party systems;
  • The election of historically disadvantaged groups in society.

Characteristics of single-winner systems include:

  • Smaller electoral bases, with a closer link between elected representative and constituents;
  • Uncontested districts;
  • Dominant in two-party systems;
  • A lack of proportionality between votes cast across the country for a party and seats won by that party;
  • Governing by single-party majorities;
  • The election of fewer from historically disadvantaged in legislatures.

Single-winner systems 

Mamabolo outlined some of the most most common single-winner systems as follows:

  • Plurality: A system in which the candidate with the most votes wins without necessarily attaining a majority of votes. It is the most common system used in nation-states descended from the British and French Empires, including the United States and Canada.
  • Two round system: A system identical to the plurality system except that if no winner attains the majority of votes in the initial election a second “runoff” round of voting takes place between the two candidates who received the most votes in the initial round.
  • Single-winner ranked-choice voting: A system in which voters rank candidates in order of preference. A candidate who receives over 50% of the first preference votes will be declared the winner; if this does not occur, the ballot count simulates a series of runoff elections. The candidate with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated, and ballots cast for that candidate are “transferred” to second choices as indicated on voters’ ballots. This process of transferring votes continues until one of the candidates has a majority.

Multi-winner systems

  • Block voting: A system in which electors have as many votes as there are candidates to be elected. Counting is identical to a plurality system, with the candidates with the most votes winning the seats;
  • Single voting: A multi-winner system in which electors have one vote. The candidates with the most votes win;
  • List proportional voting (South Africa’s current system): A multi-winner system in which political parties nominate candidates and electors vote for their most preferred party (or candidate nominated by a party). The seats are allocated to each party in proportion to the share received in the national vote.


Another choice, in addition to the one between single and multi-winner districts, is whether to elect legislators proportionally or using something called ‘winner-take-all’.

“In proportional representation, groups of winners are allocated in alignment with the proportion of the vote they receive. For example, in a five-winner district, a political party that received 38% of the vote would elect two candidates and a party that received 62% of the vote would elect three. Naturally, then, multi-winner districts can only be proportional,” the IEC said in its presentation.

“Winner-take-all, by contrast, operates on the principle that the candidate(s) with the most votes win. This means that some voters get representation and others do not.”

For example, in a five-winner district using winner-take-all, all five seats could be won by one party with just over half of the vote.

Mixed systems

The IEC noted that mixed systems, which combine single-winner and winner-take-all elements with multi-winner proportional elements, are also increasingly popular.

Many consider them to be “the best of both worlds” because they maintain the link between constituencies and representatives in single-winner districts while embracing proportionality, the group said.

The two main types of mixed systems are as follows:

  • Mixed member proportional: An electoral system in which each voter gets two votes – one for a candidate in a constituency and another for party. A fraction of seats are elected using plurality and the remainder from list proportional systems. The list seats are allocated after the plurality seats in such a way as to achieve proportionality with the overall party vote.
  • Parallel systems: An electoral system in which each voter gets two votes – one for a candidate in a constituency and another for party. A fraction of seats are elected using plurality and the remainder from list proportional systems. The list seats are allocated proportionality with the party vote, but the legislature itself need not reflect the overall party vote

Read: South Africa’s Electoral Act declared unconstitutional – must allow independent candidates to contest elections

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