The Right Not to Vote

With the 2014 elections fast approaching, some media reports have bemoaned levels of voter apathy in South Africa, with The Citizen declaring “SA Voter Apathy Worrying” (The Citizen, 4 March, 2014) and The Star calling for “Change Needed to Fight Voter Apathy” (The Star, 7 November 2013). But while voting is a right, it is not a legal obligation, and an increasing numbers of eligible voters are choosing not to exercise that right.

The latest South Africa Survey released by the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) has raised concerns that this year’s elections will yield a poor voter turnout. The survey found that the proportion of South Africans who did not vote in national and provincial elections increased from 14% in 1994 to 35% in 2009. According to the Independent Electoral Commission, in 1994, 86% of eligible voters voted in the national and provincial election, however this number had fallen to under 70% by 2009. This meant that in 2009, fewer South Africans voted for the ruling party than did not vote at all. It seems that this is set to continue, as an opinion poll carried out in July 2013 predicted that almost 25% of South Africans do not intend to vote when the country goes to the polls.

This trend is often referred to by the press and in popular discourse as “voter apathy”. The use of the word apathy suggests that the low voter turnout is a result of citizen’s lack of interest in the outcome of the election or in engaging with South Africa’s political landscape. Dr Phil Mtimkulu of Unisa’s Department of Political Sciences, commented, “Even if a person is disillusioned with the party that they had initially voted for, they should transfer the vote to another party… A low percentage of votes is an indication that people are not interested in the affairs or politics of their country.”

This widespread belief means that the choice not to vote is often condemned and associated with laziness or disinterest. The act of voting is commonly presented as a civic duty, even a moral obligation, which must be performed in order to qualify as a ‘good citizen’.

The arguments made to support the idea of a duty to vote rely upon ideas of collective responsibility and civic virtue. One rationale for regarding voting as a duty is that to confer legitimacy on laws and leaders requires a broad expression of the public will. Dr Kealeboga Maphunye, WIPHOLD-Brigalia Bam Research Chair in Electoral Democracy in Africa at Unisa, says that elections are key to the legitimacy of any democratic government, as “registration and voting are critical procedural instruments that continually give a government a fresh mandate to rule.” Citizens therefore have a responsibility to vote in order to ensure that legitimate political leadership is elected. Citizens are called on to act together in order to hold leaders accountable – a notion expressed in the common phrase: if you don’t vote you can’t complain.

Campaigns to encourage people to register and to vote emphasise the importance of active citizenship, calling on patriotic notions to encourage people to contribute to the strengthening of democracy. In South Africa these arguments are particularly poignant, as so much has been sacrificed in the struggle for equal political rights and universal suffrage. However, there are a myriad of reasons why someone may exercise their right not to vote. These range from the apparently trivial – bad weather can often affect voter turnout, particularly for the poor – to deep-seated dissatisfaction with what’s on offer from South Africa’s political parties. Choosing not to vote can be as much a political statement as voting is, and some analysts are suggesting that political parties would be wise to take heed of dropping voter turnout, rather than writing it off as apathy.

Votes have to be earned. If eligible South Africans are choosing not to vote, we should not condemn them for failing in their civic duty, but look to the political parties and ask why it is that they are failing to draw people to the polling stations. Political analyst Steven Friedman, for example, has argued that "what politicians should be doing is trying to win people's trust. It's one thing making statements saying, please go out and vote, but of course what you have to do is convince people that you are going to deal with their problems, so that they will want to go out and vote."

It is this trust in political leaders which seems to be lacking. The SAIRR has recently released figures, drawn from a variety of surveys, which suggest a great deal of disillusionment . Only 55% of South Africans have confidence in Parliament, 52% in provincial government, and a mere 49% in local government. One in four South Africans said they would not be voting in the 2014 national and provincial elections, and when asked why, 44% of respondents said that ‘things will stay the same no matter who wins’. For many people, choosing not to vote is not motivated by apathy, but is a means of expressing this dissatisfaction with the political leadership.

Some choose to demonstrate this unambiguously by spoiling their ballots. In a recent interview, Ronnie Kasrils has suggested that those who feel this way could make more of an impact through an organized campaign, saying “it's no good going into a polling booth and just crossing everything out. If you want to do something like that, as a group, issue a statement expressing why you feel that you can't vote at this particular point in time and that the ANC has to prove itself in its renewal". South Africa’s opposition parties are unlikely to welcome this option, as they hope to entice dissatisfied ANC supporters into their fold. But if citizens prefer to stay at home rather than support them, opposition parties need to engage in some introspection to ask what it is that they are not offering voters.

In a recent column, Eusebuis Mckaiser argued that “abstaining or spoiling your ballot won’t stop the buggers from wielding huge power over you in terms of health, education, economic and other policies. You may as well decide who your governing party should be even if it’s premised on choosing the least bad option”.


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