The challenges of a monster, 48-party ballot make the case for electronic voting

14 April 2019 - 00:00 By terry tselane

When the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) announced that 48 political parties would be on the national ballot of parties contesting the 2019 national and provincial elections, there was excitement everywhere, with some lauding this as democracy in action.
There are some who equate the high number of parties participating in an election with the vibrancy of a democracy. This may well be so but that on its own cannot be a sufficient indicator; it is the high number of citizens participating in an election that may in fact be one of the most important measures of the strength and depth of a democracy.
The high number of parties participating in the 2019 national and provincial elections will, however, pose a very serious challenge for the IEC.
During the 2014 elections there were 29 political parties on the national ballot. The number of parties participating at provincial level has also doubled. The net effect of this is that the ballot paper for these elections will be a lot longer compared to previous elections. This will logically have implications for the amount of money the IEC will have to pay to print ballot papers. Printing companies will be reluctant to absorb such costs.
The size of the ballot paper will also have implications. There is only so much that the officials of the IEC can do to push and compress the ballot papers to create more space in the ballot box. Ultimately the ballot box will give in and create even bigger problems for IEC officials. The IEC will therefore have to acquire more ballot boxes in order to accommodate this new reality.
I think the IEC will have to be more innovative on this one instead of running to the National Treasury. I suggest that the electoral commission consider approaching neighbouring countries such as Mozambique and Lesotho to lease their ballot boxes. This could be done at no cost to the commission.
The high number of political parties on a ballot paper will further have implications for the voter. The logos and symbols of parties will have to be compressed and made even smaller in order to accommodate the myriad parties on a single-page ballot. The lead time that a voter will take in identifying her party on the ballot paper and casting a vote will be much longer. When a voter takes a long time inside the ballot booth there will be a delay in the voting process. This may consequently lead to long queues at voting stations. When queues are longer, voters become restless.
This will be taking place against the backdrop of lower registration figures compared to previous elections. The registration figures for the 2014 elections stood at 80.8%, but for the 2019 elections the figure has dropped to 74.6%. The unintended consequence of long queues may be a reduction in voter turnout, further exacerbating the situation.
The counting officers of the IEC are also going to have a torrid time counting the national and provincial ballot papers. Counting will therefore be slower and much longer. This situation may create an environment where there are many errors during counting, making it even harder for IEC officials to do a reconciliation of the results.
In an ideal situation, counting would be conducted by a fresh team of officials, but this task often has to be performed by the same team that was responsible for voting during the day, due to budgetary constraints.
In my view, the situation that has arisen with the number of political parties participating in the elections doubling has created a new imperative.
The country must move away from manual voting to electronic voting.
I believe that, given our environment, the most suitable system would be a touch screen similar to the ATM machine used by the banks. This machine must produce a "receipt" indicating the party that a voter has voted for, and the presiding officer must stamp the back of such a paper to authenticate it before a voter deposits it in the ballot box. Counting would have happened at the time a voter touches the screen. The "receipts" would only be counted if there is a dispute.
The current situation is unsustainable and will lead to contested election results and thereby cause irreparable damage to the image of the IEC and its hardworking officials.
The IEC is our national heritage, one that we must all protect. We must use our collective intelligence as a country to find innovative ways of making its work easier.
• Tselane is the executive chair of the Institute of Election Management Services in Africa and a former vice-chair and commissioner of the Independent Electoral Commission of SA

This article is reserved for Sunday Times subscribers.

A subscription gives you full digital access to all Sunday Times content.

Already subscribed? Simply sign in below.

Registered on the BusinessLIVE, Business Day or Financial Mail websites? Sign in with the same details.

Questions or problems? Email helpdesk@timeslive.co.za or call 0860 52 52 00.