Local government elections: Covid-19 adds to IEC’s challenges

After allegations of irregularities in the 2019 national election, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) is set to make some progressive adjustments to address these issues in the upcoming 2021 local government elections (LGE). 

Incidents of double voting, shortages of indelible ink and ballot papers at voting stations, and several smaller parties even threatening court action against the IEC were just some complaints received during the 2019 national election. 

With no set date for the elections yet, the IEC says consultations with the Minister of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, have commenced. The date remains unspecified, but with the current municipal councils elected on 3 August 2016, the window period in which the elections must take place is between 4 August and 1 November 2021.

In catching up with by-elections at the end of 2020 after delays due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the IEC has had the opportunity to test their implementation of the necessary Covid-19 health protocols. 

But the commission’s deputy chief electoral officer Masego Shiburi says that delivering nation-wide elections during the pandemic remains a challenge: “Health and safety protocols have been introduced into voter registration and voting procedures to mitigate the risk of transmission of the virus. However, the unknown relates to the impact of the pandemic on the voter turnout and demand for special vote home visits.” 

He adds that local elections are operationally more challenging and complex compared to national and provincial elections.

“In national and provincial elections, there are 10 elections in total. In the 2021 municipal elections, there will be a total of 4 725 unique elections, comprising 4 468 ward elections, eight metropolitan council elections, 205 local council elections and 44 district council elections,” explains Shiburi. 

In addition to logistical demands, the IEC also takes into consideration the current political climate. Shiburi notes that municipal and ward boundaries, possible intra-political party disputes during the nomination of candidates, as well as inter-political party competition and tensions “makes for a challenging and litigious environment in which to deliver credible, free and fair elections”.

Despite Covid-19 threats and a R35-million budget cut, the IEC promises progressive adjustments to this year’s local government elections. 

  • To prevent double-voting, the IEC is still in the procurement process of voter management devices (VMD) to “ensure that a voter does not present herself to vote at more than one voting station in the elections”.
  • The IEC says it has improved the specifications of the indelible ink’s chemical content — used to prevent people from voting more than once — and will focus on the improved application thereof in voting officials’ training.
  • The IEC is busy procuring upgraded technology for identity document or card scanners, which will be used in the voter registration and voting procedures, to improve both the voter registration and voting procedures.
  • On the issue of ensuring that there are enough ballot papers at each polling station, the IEC trusts that “in the context of local government elections, it is not possible for a voter to vote where they are not registered,” thus preventing ballot paper shortages. 

Members of the public who want to report election disinformation will be able to use an online platform, the same as employed during the national and provincial elections in 2019. Specifics regarding the online platform are yet to be finalised, says Shiburi.

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Eunice Stoltz
Eunice Stoltz is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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