Troubled IEC in race against time to woo ‘born free’ voters

The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) is launching an elections drive on Wednesday to less than usual fanfare and with very little media notice, despite the struggle to get first-time "born free" voters to register.

Insiders who have worked closely with the IEC over many elections say the launch of elections is usually a low-key affair, but it was even more low-key for this election – a crucial poll where voters born after the 1994 transition would be voting for the first time. 

The generation of new voters are considered important to new parties such as the Economic Freedom Fighters and Agang SA, while the ruling ANC and official opposition, the Democratic Alliance, are also gunning for their vote. 

Figures provided by the IEC show just 12% of people aged 18 and 19 are registered to vote, and even among 20 to 29-year-olds, registration stands at only 65%.

This compared to 99% registration levels for 60-69 year olds.

According to the IEC, eligible voters under 20 make up 2.96% of the population but only 0.8% of registered voters. Thus the IEC has its work cut out to bring in that crucial vote – at a vital time. Election patterns internationally indicate that voting drops off as a democracy matures, with the least interest being in the younger generation.

But a voter registration drive scheduled for November 9 and 10 has not been widely publicised. 

However, sources from various parties in the IEC party liaison committee, which meets regularly with the IEC and have a long history with the body, say it is not necessarily a major problem that publicity was still muted, and the launch on Wednesday may well be the start of big things. 

"I'm not that worried," said one, while another said the process so far was "absolutely normal".

Another source said: "I don't think it helps to come out too early. The fact that there is nothing at the moment is not a problem for me. People forget the message and get a certain amount of fatigue. If from October 20 onwards there is nothing then I'll be worried. They need to go big two or three weeks before the registration period."

But the sources did add that it was crucial that big media houses be there to warrant the expense of the launch. "But can they get most media there?" asked one, saying the South African Broadcasting Corporation and e.TV were the most important. "If not, the money is not well spent."

Sources at e.TV said they have not received the invitation or initially planned for it. 

Journalists at the Mail & Guardian received the media invitation just three days before the event, while journalists at other newsrooms received no or very little notification. Some said they were unable to make the event because of the late notice. 

The IEC's spokesperson did not respond to repeated requests for comment, bar sending out the media invitation to the launch shortly afterwards. 

"The electoral commission will unveil its campaign for the 2014 national and provincial elections and discuss preparations for the November registration weekend," said the invitation. The venue is Gallagher Convention Centre, a common venue for the IEC's launches, and sources say that the IEC will likely reveal big plans ahead of elections and the registration drive. 

The IEC has been under strain due to internal tensions over a damning public protector's report into the body's leasing deal, which found a conflict of interest involving its chair Pansy Tlakula. Parliament and the IEC are both consulting legal opinion on how to respond to the report. 

There is concern among many who work closely with the IEC that those who are operationally running the elections are working under enormous strain with the threat of disciplinary action, recommended in the report, hanging over their heads. This includes the body's chief executive Mosotho Moepya, his deputy Norman du Plessis and manager in the office of the chief executive, Stephen Langtry. Moepya declined to speak to the M&G, while the commission said disciplinary steps were not being considered until the body had received legal advice on the public protector's report.

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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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