SMSs from parties on voting day ‘allowed’

The storm in a teacup over bulk SMSs sent by political parties continued on election day, with voters receiving SMSs from the DA urging them to go out and vote for the party.

Independent Electoral Commission spokesperson Kate Bapela said that parties were allowed to send SMSs on election day, as it did not violate the rules that campaigning should stop at midnight the day before elections. “The rule applies to rallies, meetings and marches, and campaigning inside the boundaries of a voting station.”

Voters also reported receiving a few SMSs from the ANC, but the ruling party said the national campaign had stopped sending SMSs and these were probably from branches, according to ANC spokesperson Keith Khoza.

“What we have done as the ANC is send out SMSs for the past five weeks on Fridays, up until last Friday,” Khoza told the Mail & Guardian at the IEC results centre in Pretoria on Wednesday, while parties gathered to watch the votes being counted.

There were mixed reactions from voters to the SMSs. While some found it par for the course ahead of elections, others found it intrusive and wondered if it was illegal.

But despite the outcry, legal experts said it was not illegal as the relevant laws against bulk SMSs applied to commercial SMSs — not those sent out in the public interest.

“Section 45 of the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act refers specifically to ‘unsolicited commercial communications’,” said digital media legal expert Paul Jacobson on his website in response to the issue. “The Consumer Protection Act clearly requires some form of commercial rationale for the messaging in order for its privacy protections to apply.”

However Jacobson said a “compelling argument” could be made that the same rules should apply in terms of opting out of these SMSs, which was not made available in either party’s SMSs.

DA leader Helen Zille addressed the concern on Twitter after numerous complaints, referring those who wished to stop receiving SMSs to the relevant person.

ANC Gauteng spokesperson Nkenke Kekana took a pot-shot at the DA, pointing out that their SMSs had angered and annoyed many voters. “We prefer door-to-door campaigning,” he said.

Zinzi Dwane told the M&G on Twitter she found the SMSs “absolutely unacceptable. Are cellphone companies selling our information? It’s damn annoying, let alone a violation of privacy!”

But the numbers were legitimately obtained. The DA’s Jonathan Moakes said: “We obtained these numbers from tele-canvassing, door-to-door visits as well as from commercially available databases.”

Despite the legality and legitimacy of the SMSs, some voters on Twitter confessed to being so annoyed that the campaign may have swung their vote.

Fellow tweeter Dominic White, who specialises in IT security, slammed the overwrought reaction to the SMSs saying it was incorrect to call it spam or illegal. “I recognise that there are some people so incapable of rationality that an SMS sways their vote, but I wish they didn’t have Twitter,” he said.

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Verashni Pillay
Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.

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