Opinion

Technology and cash could find SA's missing voters

12 August 2018 - 00:00 By ronnie phala

If you plough through the affidavits, judgments and media reports on the South African voters roll debacle, you'd be forgiven for thinking the country is on the brink of a major constitutional crisis.
But beyond the polemics and the political tedium, the problem is a straightforward one. And the solution lies in our tried and tested ability to co-operate across party lines. This time with a little help from digital tech.
The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) is looking for 2-million or so people who once registered to vote, but whose address details are either missing or incomplete - making it difficult to assign them a voting station.
The Constitutional Court has instructed the IEC to do its utmost to locate them, while acknowledging that the issue cannot realistically be resolved in its entirety.This is virgin territory, but political parties are having none of it. They've taken the IEC through the court system all the way up to the highest court, and are not about to let up. They are opposing the IEC's latest application seeking a postponement on finding the missing voters until after the 2019 election. The Constitutional Court is set to hear argument this month.
So, what's the IEC to do, when those who wrote the book on the art and science of tracing the craftiest dodgers are unable to assist any further?
From a careful reading of this matter, and time spent consulting for the IEC during its nascent years, it is my considered opinion that political parties and their millions of supporters hold the key to finding the missing voters. After all, they are the ones on the ground, running "with the people".
Political parties, during their regular campaign activities, can assist the IEC to locate the missing voters, and to register new ones. In order to foster enthusiasm and encourage performance, they should be compensated financially for each voter registered. That would be killing three birds with one stone - campaigning, voter registration and campaign funding.
In order to do that, they will require the right tools.
A major bank recently launched a selfie-driven process for registering new clients. The software is compatible with most smartphones and with the IEC's newly commissioned election machines, and can thus be easily adapted for voter registration purposes.Fortunately for the IEC, its registration requirements are far less onerous than those of a bank. You don't need a good credit record to vote. And the IEC takes you at your word regarding where you live. No verification necessary.
Only two steps would be required to register to vote: take pictures of the voter and their ID, then capture the voter's address details. The facial-recognition algorithm obviates the need for the physical presence of IEC officials.
With smartphones in hand, plus intimate knowledge of their communities, political parties can go and find the missing (and new) voters.
With the next registration weekend budgeted to cost R415m, it is perhaps more prudent to consider fewer such registration weekends. The funds can be repurposed towards a more targeted, party-driven voter registration effort in which the IEC pays only once a voter is successfully registered.
Voters may appreciate their preferred parties receiving funding through this process, and thus encourage others to participate. Political parties themselves will conjure up myriad ways of using this solution creatively to get closer to the voters, while getting paid for it.
The parties challenging the IEC at the Constitutional Court may very well prevail, but theirs will be a Pyrrhic victory. The real casualty will be our fledgling democracy. The time is now to call for a détente, lest we allow a good crisis to go to waste.
Whatever the final outcome, it is difficult to imagine a solution that does not involve the active co-operation of the political parties - the representatives of the people.
*Phala works with a fintech start-up and is writing his master's dissertation on innovative governance models

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