IEC’s only option is an expensive registration weekend

The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) has had to readjust its budget to provide an additional R120-million for a R300-million voter registration weekend to collect outstanding voter address details — and admits it is “cutting it close” to meet a Constitutional Court deadline.

An IEC source said there was “no way” the June 2018 deadline would be met, but newly appointed chief electoral officer Sy Mamabolo said this week the use of new technology would speed up the process.

There are 26-million registered voters on the IEC’s voter database, of whom 19-million have addresses. Three million have no address registered, and four million are listed as having an incomplete address. The majority of the voters without addresses are in rural and densely populated areas, such as informal settlements, the commission said.

Mamabolo said the IEC has found the money for the registrations. It has “reprioritised its budget and postponed some projects to free up money and complement the R180-million that treasury promised for next year”.

The IEC requires R300-million to hold a voter registration weekend, which it says is the most effective way of collecting the missing information. “We anticipate that [the registration weekend] would be in the first quarter of next year. There is a big rush anticipated and we are cutting it close,” Mamabolo added.

The IEC this week revealed that the treasury approved its request for funding but could make R180-million available only in the 2018-2019 financial year. This will leave the IEC with less than three months to conduct a voter registration drive and process the handwritten forms.

But this would be nearly impossible, an insider who helped to manage 2016’s voter registration drive said.

“The character-recognition technology recognises handwriting. But it still took at least a number of months to process. The system is a manual process and so forms get lost, damaged, [and] you can’t [always] read people’s writing. You think they said one when they meant seven. It’s a laborious exercise that is almost always delayed.”

But Mamabolo disagreed. “With the use of scanning technology, we will be able to turn the forms into data format in a shorter period than has previously been the case.”

The technology that recognises handwriting is being phased out by the IEC, which is switching over to a new digital system that captures people’s addresses using GPS at the voting station, but this will not be ready before the deadline.

The race against the clock is the result of a judgment by the Constitutional Court, which ordered the IEC to collect all addresses on the voters’ roll before June 2018.

An accurate roll, which includes residential addresses, is necessary to safeguard the credibility and integrity of the election, IEC vice-chairperson Terry Tselane said on Wednesday. “The voters’ roll is more than a register of voters; it is the foundation of free and fair elections. If the voters’ roll is questionable, all other aspects of the elections will suffer from inadequacies and shortcomings.”

The money required is to pay staff at 22 612 voting stations in 4 500 wards and to process the information collected.

Mamabolo said the IEC is already financially constrained. It has appointed 10 more people to run its recently reopened call centre, and it has used in-house technicians to design an online address update portal.

He said the IEC will need to hire three people per voting station during the registration weekend and pay 67 836 temporary employees.

The online collection of addresses is easier and more accurate but will not service the entire country, Mamabolo said, although the commission has also made it possible for voters to update their addresses on mobile devices. But the cost of data poses a problem and negotiations with mobile operators to subsidise this have not yet been concluded.

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Govan Whittles

Govan Whittles is a general news and political multimedia journalist at the Mail & Guardian. Born in King William's Town in the Eastern Cape, he cut his teeth as a radio journalist at Primedia Broadcasting. He produced two documentaries and one short film for the Walter Sisulu University, and enjoys writing about grassroots issues, national politics, identity, heritage and hip-hop culture.

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