The right to vote is one of the most basic and fundamental rights in a democracy, but to vote or not to vote (with apology to Shakespeare), seems to be the question.
To vote is the primary manner in which citizens exercise their right to choose those who must represent them. It is also the primary manner in which citizens can influence the quality of government - in other words, the willingness of those elected to serve the people as their representatives, account and respond to the people in an open manner. This right and its significance go to the heart of our constitutional democracy. This much is evident from section 1(d) of the Constitution where "universal adult suffrage, a national common voters roll, regular elections and a multi – party system of democratic government, to ensure accountability, responsiveness and openness" are enshrined as some of the foundational values. The importance of these values is reiterated in section 19 which provides for the right and freedom of every South African to support and campaign for a political party of choice; the right to free, fair and regular elections for those legislative bodies established by the Constitution; and the right to stand for public office, to hold such office if elected and to vote – in secret – in such elections.
The Constitutional Court previously expressed itself on the importance of this right – not only the importance of the symbolic right to vote, but also the democratic value of the right to vote. In August v The Electoral Commission & Others, the Court stated that the vote of each and every citizen is a "badge of dignity and personhood. Quite literally, it says that everybody counts." It seems, however, that not all South Africans have yet come to grips with the importance of this badge of dignity and citizenship. According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), roughly 32 million South Africans were eligible to register as voters for the 2009 elections. However, according to IDEA and data made available by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), only 23 million South Africans registered to vote in that election, of which only about 18 million voters actually cast a ballot on Election Day. As a result, the biggest constituency in South Africa following the 2009 elections was the 14 million citizens who were either not registered to vote, or who were registered but did not vote. In Richter v The Minister for Home Affairs & Others the Court, in reference to the aforementioned August-judgement, held that the right to vote, as well as its exercise, has a constitutional importance in addition to this symbolic value: "[It] is a crucial working part of our democracy. Without voters who want to vote, who will take the trouble to register, and to stand in queues, as millions patiently and unforgettably did in April 1994, democracy itself will be imperilled".
On 7 May, South Africans will again have the opportunity to exercise this fundamental right to choose – albeit unfortunately indirectly so – those who must represent them. By doing so, voters will also be able to influence the quality of their national and provincial governments. In the Richter-case the Constitutional Court emphasised the importance of exercising the right to vote in the context of the values and principles of our constitutional democracy: "Each vote strengthens and invigorates our democracy. In marking their ballots, citizens remind those elected that their position is based on the will of the people and will remain subject to that will". A responsive, transparent and accountable government therefore starts with the election of responsive, transparent and accountable representatives – or political parties in the case of South Africa's system of proportional representation based on closed party lists.
Are we taking the right to vote, and therefore democracy itself, for granted by being ignorant and complacent? Some may say one's right to vote incorporates one's right not to vote. This may be one way of looking at the matter. After all, in terms of the Constitution and our electoral legislation, voting is not compulsory in South Africa (unlike in countries such as Australia and Brazil). In this regard, a recent and rather interesting call from Ronnie Kasrils, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge and other ANC stalwarts for voters to spoil their ballot instead of voting for the governing party, may show just how much (or little) South Africans understand and value the notion of a multi-party constitutional democracy. In terms of the "Sidikiwe! Vukani! Vote Campaign", voters were initially asked to spoil their vote rather than to vote for the governing party. The objective of this campaign was, however, later clarified by Madlala-Routledge as to mean voting for a minority party or spoiling the ballot.
Though, by not voting or by spoiling a ballot, one does little more than abdicating one's right to be governed by consent to the next person. If the next person does the same, very soon such "democracy" becomes a minority of party bosses governing a majority people. Accordingly, for a democracy to remain functional, the right to vote must be conceivably viewed than more than a right. It is arguably also a responsibility and a duty – if only a moral duty – to participate in such democracy and to do so in an informed and responsible manner. The importance of this duty and responsibility is eloquently elaborated upon by Jason Brennan in The Ethics of Voting where he contends that "voting is morally significant" as it "changes the quality, scope, and kind of government". From a moral point of view, according to Brennan, "voting is not like ordering food off of a menu. When you order salad at a restaurant, you alone bear the consequences of your decision. No one else gets stuck with a salad. If you make a bad choice, at least you are hurting only yourself... Voting is not like that. If anything, when we vote, we are imposing one meal on everybody...We decide electoral outcomes together." Be that as it may, the importance of actually ordering a meal – instead of waiting for someone else to order and then to complain about what is served – is rather obvious.
In our constitutional democracy, to exercise one's right to vote and to vote for whomever one chooses, is to ensure government by consent. Moreover, it is to ensure that those whom we entrust with our vote continue to represent the people in a manner that promotes, respects and upholds the constitutional values, principles and rights on behalf, and in the interest of, every South African – instead of politicians and party bosses. In keeping with the Constitutional Court in the Richter-case: "...the right to vote itself cannot be exercised by a citizen unless he or she takes the trouble to exercise it". Hence, in a functional constitutional democracy, whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous political fortune (and sometimes arrogance), or to rather take a stand and vote for accountable, responsive and transparent government, should be a declamatory question. The real question is not whether, but rather how to vote.
However, when we exercise the right to vote, bear in mind Brennan's caution that "we can make government better or worse. In turn, our votes can make people's lives better or worse...The way we vote can help or harm people."