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Is South Africa ready for electronic voting?

At least nineteen African countries will go to the polls in 2024 to choose national and regional leaders. Some observers have aptly called it an African ‘Democracy Super Bowl.’ Yet, how does a continent that has suffered decades of state capture (The Global State of Democracy Report – 2022) and democratic decline ensure free, fair and participatory electoral processes for effective democratic governance? Technology may be the answer.

Voter apathy a threat to democracy

There are multiple threats to African democracy. An increasing number of African leaders continue to unilaterally change their constitutions and legal frameworks to hold on to power. The past decade has also seen a rise in the number of authoritarian governments, especially in West Africa where power transfers are marked by coups d’état and violent election-related protests. Most importantly however, democracy in Africa is being threatened by mounting voter apathy, low registration numbers and low voter turnouts – especially among young people.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021 and subsequent lockdowns, political mobilisation and freedom of movement were impacted, resulting in concern from electoral officials about the effectiveness of manual voting. Nearly 14 African countries including Botswana, Chad, and Ethiopia postponed their elections according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. However, many others such as South Africa revised their election strategies to include digital technologies to bolster election management and participation. This was done amid criticism from cyber-pessimists about the reliability of online technology to deliver clean voting outcomes. 

South Africa’s digital attempt

South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), for instance, invested millions to acquire 40,000 voter management devices (VMDs) to electronically verify voters while also tackling double voting and election fraud in the 2021 local government elections. In its official report about the elections, the IEC argued for replacing ageing portable ‘zip-zip’ machines used since 1998 with new smart devices. Multi-functional VMD technology scans barcodes of IDs, record voters’ addresses, store details of the national voters’ roll, and transmit data from polling stations in real-time to a central point.  

Supporters of digital technology say with over 40 million active Internet users, South Africa is perfect for testing VMD adoption in election management. The uniqueness of the municipal elections would also provide key lessons for other emerging democracies in Africa planning to walk a similar path. This follows the IEC’s urgent application to the Constitutional Court to determine whether the elections should be postponed or not.

What we learnt

Five key lessons emerged. Firstly, South Africa’s elections were declared free and fair by both the IEC and international observers suggesting that democratic practices are alive and well. This is an important lesson for African countries to respect their judicial processes even in times of uncertainty as observed during the pandemic.

Secondly, the use of VMDs helped to peacefully resolve the issue of restricted political mobilisation and freedom of movement and association. This suggests that the VMDs achieved their aim of upholding the credibility and integrity of the elections.

Thirdly, the new technology presented some serious challenges including the exclusion of an estimated 100,000 people from the voters’ roll due to malfunctioning devices and some elements of human error. There were also reports of poor Internet connections at some voting stations. Democracy is devalued and the credibility of an election can be questioned if citizens are excluded from participating. Nevertheless, the outcome of the election was peaceful despite this anomaly. 

Fourthly, South Africa’s 2021 elections highlighted the need for proper budgeting by African governments. According to the IEC Report (2022), budget cuts amounting to R382 million in the 2020/21 and 2021/22 financial years led to the cancellation of planned voter registration ahead of the elections.

Lastly, VMDs did not resolve the issue of voter apathy, low voter registration numbers, and low voter turnouts. This points to a need for IEC officials and other African countries to find lasting solutions. Roodt (2021) argues that about 46% of all eligible voters turned out to vote in South Africa in 2021, the lowest figure since the fall of apartheid. A crisis looms for African governments if patterns of non-participation in elections persist.

Where to now?

It has been demonstrated that a shift away from legacy media to digital communication spaces would reduce voter apathy and increase electoral engagement. While South Africa maintains that it has not formally adopted a position on e-voting, IEC officials still recognise the benefits of using digital technology during elections. An expanded VMD programme will be rolled out in the upcoming 2024 national elections including other security measures to tackle disinformation and misinformation.

At the very least, it is recommended that African countries use both traditional and modern methods of participating in an election while they find more effective ways to digitalise. A positive relationship between citizens, election officials, and government is needed for the successful implementation of digital technology initiatives in Africa. Problems of worsening inequality in the developing world need more investment in time and the strengthening of digital policies to be completely resolved, if ever.

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Is South Africa ready for electronic voting?