Fears of expat vote 'nightmare'

It will be a “logistical nightmare” for the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) to prepare for elections if the Constitutional Court confirms a ruling that South Africans living abroad should be allowed to vote, an election expert told the Mail & Guardian this week.

Titi Pitso, of the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa, added that opposition parties should have approached Parliament or the courts “years ago” to have the Electoral Act amended.

Pretoria High Court Judge Piet Ebersohn ruled on Monday that the law infringes the rights of almost all the two million South African expatriates by limiting voting to those temporarily abroad.

Ebersohn ordered the government and the IEC to change the law. His judgement has been referred to the Constitutional Court for confirmation.

Pitso underscored the logistical, time and budget challenges the IEC would face, which might delay polling.

“The commission will need to ascertain the number of potential voters in every country in the world and collect their information to generate a voters’ roll,” she said.

Although state employees and students living abroad cast their votes at South African embassies, Pitso said these could not accommodate large numbers of expatriates. Between 600 000 and 1,4-million South Africans are thought to live in London alone.

The IEC would also have to set up voting stations worldwide and send election officers to each country.
“The IEC did not expect to cater for two million expats when they received their budget,” Pitso said.

The commission would also have to cater for the printing and transporting of ballot papers to ensure that ballots are counted in time for the IEC to announce the election results within seven days.

She warned that a delay in announcing the results “could fuel suspicion and political violence in an already heated political climate”.

“It’s fair that South Africans overseas should be allowed to vote. My argument is simply that the [DA and Freedom Front Plus] should not have waited until so close to elections to contest this law.”

The South African High Commission in the United Kingdom and the IEC would not comment, saying they were awaiting the Constitutional Court’s ruling.

The FF+ brought the high court application on behalf of Willem Richter, a South African teacher living in the UK. It challenged the constitutionality of Section 33 of the Electoral Act, which declares that only state employees, students, participants in international sporting events and people on holiday or business who are “temporarily” absent from South Africa may vote.

All South Africans living abroad could vote in the 1994 elections, but the legislation was subsequently amended.

FF+ leader Pieter Mulder dismissed claims that the exercise would be too costly and time-consuming for the IEC to arrange.

“The infrastructure for voting is already in place at our embassies and ballot papers are sent across without any problems during each election.

“It’s just a matter of adding more resources to cater for more voters. I don’t believe this will cost as much as experts claim it will,” Mulder said.

He added: “Interested citizens will have to approach the embassy and register — this will create a filter, and there’ll certainly be less than two million expats casting their vote.”

Mulder suggested the commission should consider implementing an electronic voting system similar to that used in the United States.

Mulder said that opposition parties have been trying since 2003 to have the Act amended. After countless delays and unmet promises by the ANC, “all that was left was to go to court”. He said the expatriate vote could have a significant impact on the election result.

“It’s unrealistic that every expatriate will vote for the opposition, but every vote counts in this election. It’s possible, for the first time, that the ANC could win less than 50% of the vote in some provinces.”

The ANC said it was preferable for all South African to have voting rights, but expressed concern about a possible election delay.— Additional reporting by Sapa

Qudsiya Karrim

Qudsiya Karrim

Qudsiya Karrim is deputy online manager of mg.co.za. She was previously editor of Voices of Africa, the M&G’s blogging platform. She’s also a journalist, social media junkie, mom, bibliophile, wishful photographer and wannabe chef. She has a love-hate relationship with the semicolon and doesn’t care much for people who tYp3 LiK3 ThI$. World peace is important to her, but not as much as a 24/7 internet connection. Read more from Qudsiya Karrim

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