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Never waste a serious crisis: time to rethink how we vote

With the City of Tshwane soon to hold by-elections to elect new councillors, the coronavirus outbreak means innovating to change our traditional voting practices

20 March 2020 - 18:42 By Lebogang Maile
The National Council of Provinces has concurred with the decision to dissolve the City of Tshwane council after months of chaos. The city is headed for by-elections
The National Council of Provinces has concurred with the decision to dissolve the City of Tshwane council after months of chaos. The city is headed for by-elections
Image: Twitter/Sipho Stuurman

The coronavirus outbreak has changed the way we go about everyday living, the things we normally do, at least for the foreseeable future. Our lives have been upended by this outbreak and it is clear for all to see that we can’t keep operating in the same manner that we always have. It is business unusual, and of course this affects government and governance, like any other strata of society.

In a recent meeting with the Electoral Commission of SA to discuss the upcoming Tshwane by-elections, after the provincial government placed the municipality under administration through a Section 139 (1) (c) intervention, it dawned on us that not only should the way we enact governance change but, also, the way we campaign and vote might need to change in light of the fact that we have a serious outbreak of a virus that is now of pandemic proportions. The outbreak of the coronavirus has also had a disruptive effect on local election polls in France and the German state of Bavaria, leading to low voter turnout.

One was reminded of the words of former White House chief of staff during the Obama administration and one-time Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, when he said, “you never let a serious crisis go to waste. What I mean by that is that, it’s an opportunity to do things you thought you could not do before.” Perhaps this unfortunate outbreak could become a positive disrupter, in the most ironic of ways, in how we do things, in how we campaign during elections, how we vote, how we govern and deliver services. It could be the kind of disrupter that forces us to stop merely talking about modernisation of the public service, but actually take drastic steps to implement it.

Many of the local government service delivery lags that cause so much social unrest could be resolved through modernising our systems, creating apps to address service delivery issues and challenges such as billing, changing response times to fixing potholes, housing delivery and so forth. The coronavirus outbreak should cause us to think outside the box and look to drastically change how we do things, how we govern, to automate government systems and processes for greater efficiency and effectiveness and also to accelerate service delivery.

In the current US presidential primaries, there has been much talk about suspending voting due to the coronavirus outbreak; but in many states, voting has continued, with usage of the postal system, voting by mail being one of the options. With local government elections soon to be upon us in SA and a big metro by-election awaiting us in Tshwane, this voting by mail option would have been an interesting option to pursue in an ideal world, given the spread and reach of our post office with its many branches. But of course, due to its many well-known challenges at present and the high risk of electoral fraud, this is an option we can’t even entertain, but may want to look into going forward.

A series of think pieces from influential writers
A series of think pieces from influential writers
Image: Nolo Moima

Another interesting option is one that the Americans have used for their overseas-based voters, which is the option of sending your ballot by e-mail. This would require high levels of encryption and security practices to be built into whatever system or software is used. We could also use secure web portals to get people to vote online, but once again the biggest challenge would be levels of security and insurance against voter fraud. Our challenge is to create a secure, online voting system which is as watertight and fool proof as is humanly possible. In the UK, during the 2002/3 and 2007 local government elections, they had trials of an e-voting system which they discontinued in 2008, so this is not a new idea, but one that needs to be explored further in the interests of modernising and upgrading our electoral, voting systems.

This also calls for us to look into alternative ways of campaigning during election season, from the traditional door-to-door and mass rallies that are such an integral part of our political culture. Here we should consider things like online, social media town hall meetings, as was done so successfully by former US president Barack Obama. These online town hall meetings would take the form of questions being asked by the public during set times and dates that are then responded to by politicians on the campaign trail, in the conversational manner that characterises most social media interactions. Most people in the townships and informal settlements are already on social media platforms, but what would be needed is to increase broadband access and lower data prices, or even increase free Wi-Fi access with the goal of enhancing democratic processes in this regard.

Online debates between political parties on social media by going live, with direct feedback and questions from the public, is another modern way we could embrace in terms of campaigning. Of course, this has the potential of changing even how we conduct press briefings, moving away from the traditional getting a bunch of journalists together into one room, with TV cameras, issuing a statement and then taking questions. One of the interesting developments in this regard, is how one of the prominent local television news channels has responded to the coronavirus outbreak by not conducting studio interviews, but rather doing Skype interviews.

In challenging times, like the current times we are in, with the coronavirus pandemic having brought the world almost to a standstill, we must question accepted reality and norms and come up with new answers and solutions to the realities we are faced with. Perhaps this virus outbreak will cause us to reboot and change the way we govern, campaign and elect, towards greater progress and development for society. We must innovate in order to enhance, develop and upgrade our democratic processes and systems.

Maile MPL, is the Gauteng Member of the Executive Council for Human Settlements, Urban Planning, Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs.