This is the first election in a democratic South Africa where the spoilt vote is punted as an alternative for undecided voters, following last month’s launch of the Sidikiwe! Vukani! campaign.
The campaign, led by former minister Ronnie Kasrils and other ANC veterans, is encouraging disgruntled ANC supporters to either spoil their vote or choose to “tactically” vote for a smaller party.
So how have spoilt votes featured previously?
In the 2009 national election, only four of the 13 political parties that won seats in the National Assembly received more votes than the number of votes that were spoiled.
In that election, 239 237 votes (or 1.34%) – of the just under 18-million cast – were spoiled. It doesn’t sound like a lot until you consider that if spoilt votes were a political party, it could have won six seats in the National Assembly.
The parties that won seats in the National Assembly with fewer votes than that were the African Christian Democratic Party (three seats from 142 658 votes), the African People’s Convention (one seat; 35 867 votes), Azapo (one seat; 38 245 votes), the Independent Democrats (four seats; 162 915 votes), the Minority Front (one seat; 43 474 votes), the Pan Africanist Congress (one seat; 48 530 votes), the United Christian Democratic Party (two seats; 66 086 votes), the United Democratic Movement (four seats; 149 796 votes) and the Freedom Front Plus (four seats; 146 796 votes).
In the 2004 elections, seven of the 12 parties that won seats in the Assembly did it with fewer votes than were spoiled. Spoilt votes totalled 250 887, or just under 1.6% of the 15 863 558 cast. The New National Party clinched its seven seats with just under 7 000 more votes than were spoiled (257 824).
Those that didn’t beat the spoilt vote count were the ACDP with seven seats from 250 272 votes, Azapo with one seat from 39 116 votes, the Minority Front with two seats with 55 267 votes, the PAC with three seats from 113 512 votes, the UCDP with three seats from 117 792 votes, the UDM with nine seats from 355 717 votes and the Freedom Front Plus with four seats from 139 465 votes.
When asked if the rate of spoilt votes in South Africa’s election is a cause for concern, Sy Mamabolo, deputy chief electoral officer of electoral operations at the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), said that the proportion of spoilt ballots has not been greater than 2% in the past 20 years of elections. In 2004, the rate was 1.58% and in 2009 it dropped to 1.34%.
“The IEC doesn’t want any votes to be spoiled; ideally, every cast ballot must be counted. That is why we do voter education programmes to keep the proportion of spoilt ballots low. If there are spoilt votes, we are disappointed,” said Mamabolo.
Message of discontent
What happens if, for example, you decide to use your ballot paper to write a message of discontent in big letters across the page – instead of choosing a party?
Mamabolo says that if somebody were simply to write the word “No” on a ballot paper, for example, it would be counted as a rejected vote and stored with the rest of the ballots. The commission would take a decision to dispose of those ballots after six months.
Only a court can order the IEC to open the stored ballots for inspection. So if you have written a message on your ballot, the likelihood of anybody but the people present at the counting seeing it appear to be slim.
But even if the spoilt vote rate were to increase dramatically in this election, and even if people have consciously spoiled their vote, the result of the election “would stand”, Mamabolo emphasised.
When asked whether the fact that some political parties win seats in Parliament with fewer votes than the spoilt vote count is a cause for concern, Mamabolo said that question should be put to those parties.