Major election changes proposed for South Africa – including the option to vote for individuals, not parties

The Congress of the People (Cope) has provided further details around its planned Electoral Laws Amendment Bill, which will allow citizens to vote for a single presidential candidate.

First announced in 2020, the draft private member’s bill aims to give effect to the June 2020 Constitutional Court ruling 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.

Cope leader Mosiuoa Lekota previously explained that under the current party system, voters are ‘estranged’ because a direct relationship with a member of parliament is absent.

In a presentation to parliament on Tuesday (9 February), Cope’s Farouk Cassim explained that the new bill aims to address this issue by focusing on six key ‘building blocks’:

  • The inclusion of independent candidates in elections;
  • Creating a hybrid system which provides proportional representation as well as 52 multi-member constituencies;
  • Retaining the single transferable vote mechanism to ensure proportional representation;
  • Substituting the ‘closed list’ representation system with an ‘open list system’ allowing voters the right to vote for a candidate on a political party’s list rather than the party;
  • Requiring each candidate to publish how that candidate will seek to advance the provisions of the Bill of Rights when elected;
  • Achieving a smaller government because of the dire fiscal reality; and
  • Exploring electronic voting.

Open list system

The draft bill proposes the use of an ‘open list’ proportional representation system.

This will allow voters to pick a candidate of their own choice from each political party’s list for each of the three segments of the election: provincial, national (1) and national (2).

Political parties will still submit their lists to the IEC with their preferred rankings of candidates.

The final position on the list, however, will be determined by the votes that each candidate attracts. Candidates with the most votes will rise to the top of the list.

On the day of the election, voters will be casting their vote for a candidate for each segment of the general election even if that candidate happens to be on the list of a party.


Single transferrable vote system

The draft bill also retains the use of the single transferable vote – with some modifications.

Rather than one candidate representing all the voters in a constituency, multi-member constituencies will be created where as few as 1 MP and as many as 25 MPs could be elected from a big constituency to reflect the diversity of ideology in that area.

On election day, a voter will have three votes – one for each segment of the elections. Voters can vote for an independent candidate for each segment or a candidate on the list of a political party.

The IEC will determine a quota for a candidate to make the cut for each segment of the election. Those who meet the quota and qualify to be elected, may have surplus votes.

These will be distributed from that candidate to a candidate on his/her party’s list in a ranking order determined by the IEC.

Finally, all unused or surplus votes will go into the common pool allowing other candidates from other parties to use up surplus votes.  The outcome at the end will be closely proportional.


Independents 

Before the general election, independent candidates will have to notify the IEC to which independent candidate/s their surplus votes, if any, must go.

This will be the case if they reach the quota or if their votes become unusable because they did not reach the ceiling that was set.

If the votes of independent candidates cannot be used for whatever reason, they will go into the common pool.

The IEC will make a list in descending order and declare how many candidates at the top of the new list made by the commission after awarding seats to those who make the quota.

The seat allocation will eventually be as near proportional as possible to meet constitutional requirements.


Constituencies

The bill argues for the combination of proportionality with constituency representation, with Cope saying that only individuals have the capability of representing voters in a granular manner, not political parties.

To achieve this personal association with a public representative, each of South Africa’s current fifty-two districts could, as per their population size, serve as a larger or smaller multi-member constituency which could be contested by individuals as well as political parties through an “open list” proportional representation system.

Each district, therefore, will have councillors as well as dedicated representatives serving in the National Assembly and Provincial Legislatures as well.

The Independent Electoral Commission would be responsible for determining the boundaries of each constituency, as well as keeping a map of each constituency.


Ballot card vs ballot paper 

The draft bill also proposes replacing the current ballot paper system with a ballot card.

Under this system, the allocated number of every candidate, together with the candidate’s full name and photograph must appear on three separate posters, which shall be pasted on three separate panels in each polling booth on the day of the elections.

Each voter exercises his or her vote by voting for the candidate of his or her choice, per each ballot card, by placing such candidates’ allocated number on each of the ballot cards in respect of each of the three segments of the election.

There shall be separate ballot cards for the election of members—

  • Of each constituency for the election of the National Assembly;
  • Of each constituency for the election of a provincial legislature; and
  • For the overall composition of the National Assembly and this must be referred to as the national ballot card.

The IEC must allocate a number to every candidate, while the number allocated must contain a prefix to distinguish whether the candidate is contesting the election for a seat in the National Assembly or for a seat in a provincial legislature.


Electronic voting 

The draft bill also proposes the introduction of electronic voting systems, with Cassim highlighting a number of countries which have implemented systems successfully.

In Brazil, each candidate is assigned a number in which the first 2 digits are the party number and the others the candidate’s number within the party.

The voting machine has a telephone-like panel where the voter presses the buttons for the number of their chosen candidate.

In Finland, each candidate is assigned a 3-digit number, while in Italy, the voter must write the name of each chosen candidate in blank boxes under the party box.

Cassim acknowledged the criticism that electronic voting machines must have a paper trail also. However, he said that this can be corrected easily by adding a printer so that a printout can be deposited into the right ballot boxes.


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Major election changes proposed for South Africa – including the option to vote for individuals, not parties