Simon Williamson

Bravo the IEC

2013-05-17 11:49

Simon Williamson

Argue as you will about the political systems of South Africa versus the rest of the world, but in terms of holding an election, Mzansi's Independent Electoral Commission is outstanding.
As I covered the US election and its lead up last year for News24, story after story broke about voting rights, voter suppression and so on. The USA is made up of 50 mostly-autonomous states and each state has its own way of voting - its own rules, regulations, machines, way of counting, rules under which a recount can be called and so on. And in some states, particularly swing states (which change between Democrat and Republican from election to election) state governments began interfering with legislation that would suit their party at all levels of government.

Voting times
For example, in Florida (a Republican governed state) early voting was severely limited from 13 days prior to the election to eight days, killing off one of the Sundays before the election. Why is this important? Poor black voters - in other words Democrat voters who can't afford a car - usually get together to share transport on the Sundays during early voting (called "souls to the polls"). Whatever defence Governor Rick Scott may have tried to use in justifying this, it is a policy that disproportionately affects Democratic - his opposition - voters in the most important swing state in the USA.
In Ohio an attempt was made to fiddle with early voting to allow military families (who lean Republican) more time to vote. The state government also attempted to limit the hours early voting could happen in Democrat-leaning counties to office hours, while lengthening them to include nights and weekends in Republican ones. (Ohio is usually an absolute shit show during election season so this sort of thing is nothing new.) 

These two are hardly the only culprits: Georgia, Tennessee and West Virginia all changed the rules for early voting. Florida, Illinois and Wisconsin made it more difficult to register. Pennsylvania went the absurd route - via the courts - of election officials being required to ask voters for ID to vote, but voters being able to answer in the negative (this in turn led to a raft of advertising around the state incorrectly telling voters they had to show ID, with the intention of persuading people without such documentation to not even bother going to the polls).
In the world's most significant democracy, this is quite the mess that commonly accompanies elections.

Uniform way of voting

In South Africa, we don't have to deal with much of this nonsense. Due to the way our government is set up (although admittedly I have previously argued for more autonomy for our provinces, but I don't believe elections should be outside the scope of the IEC) there is a uniform way of voting, consistent rules, and pretty decent organisation. Indeed there have been reports of voting stations running out of ballots, and other anecdotal flaws, but the IEC has earned a reputation for fixing problems that arise.
Western Cape Premier, and Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille has criticised the IEC after elections in both 2009 and 2011, but has always accepted the results of elections - she claimed before the 2009 election that the IEC was capable of free and fair elections, but added it was because the DA maintained pressure on the organisation. There's also the possibility that Zille is blasting the IEC in the public eye to blame the institution rather than less-than-desired turnout - late on Thursday evening I asked a DA official to clarify precisely what Zille meant, or whether she had ever rejected any election results, but by the time of filing had no response. By my understanding, the DA hasn't ever rejected election results, so even the IEC's most vocal critic seems to think the system is working.
Aside from Zille around election time, the IEC is not immune to criticism. In July last year a Public Protector investigation, with much encouragement from United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa, was undertaken into the lease of its offices. But these results have not yet been published. Although it is possible this will result in maladministration charges, it is worth pointing out that this doesn't affect South Africa's elections. Maladministration should be punished, but this kind of incident (which is still in its investigative stage) is not derailing South Africa’s democratic process.
Further to this point, a leaked US cable from 23 April 2009 says:  "Although many of the US Mission's election observers did hear complaints about long lines on the day of the [2009] vote and heard from poll workers about box shortages and ballot papers running out, the IEC responded to many of the problems quickly and professionally."

In fact, according to the 2010 South African Social Attitude Survey the South African public trusts the IEC, with only two public non-government institutions ranking higher (churches and, umm, the SABC). But the IEC remains the one public institution with its approval rating increasing (the survey also alludes to the police approval rating increasing but that is likely to have changed since 2010).

Simple and effective
A 2011 study by Jare Struwig, Benjamin Roberts & Elme Vivier of the Human Sciences Research Council concludes, "During and since the [1994] elections, the IEC has proved that it has the ability to successfully manage elections."
Completely antithetical to the aforementioned activities in the US, the IEC increased accessibility to voting in the 2011 local government elections by adding "special votes", to enable people who were eligible to vote to do so if they were unable to be present on election day. In 2009 - although via the courts, and against the alleged wishes of then IEC chairperson Brigalia Bam - South African citizens living overseas were permitted to vote. This was obviously going to count against the ruling party (albeit in a minor way) - in principle, a test of whether there was political interference.
As things stand, our election process is simple and effective, and approved of by the country. If only the rest of the world could say that.

- Simon Williamson is a freelance writer. Follow @simonwillo on Twitter.

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