… And then there were three

RIAAN DE VILLIERS  /  WHATEVER else you can say about Mzansi, we have some supreme and enduring national talents. The first is to meet the worst possible expectations, whether national or international. Our record in this respect is almost flawless – indeed, it could be added to our national coat of arms, right next to ǃke e꞉ ǀxarra ǁke: ‘Guaranteed to disappoint’.

Our second national talent is to make relatively simple things seem really complicated. And the third, to make relatively complicated things seem, well, really complicated as well.

On the eve of our supposedly epochal national and provincial elections, the last two are in evidence once again. To wit, you may feel that, however difficult it’s going to be choose between some 60 political parties, at least casting your vote is going to be relatively easy. Like before, one cross on a party-only national ballot paper, one cross on a party-only provincial ballot paper, and that’s it.

A new arrival

Well, no. This time, voters are going to have to draw crosses on THREE ballot papers instead of TWO. Huh? This, it appears, is the result of allowing independent candidates to contest the national elections. They will now be lumped together with (some) political parties on a new ballot paper titled ‘REGIONAL’, besides those titled ‘NATIONAL’ and ‘PROVINCIAL’.

REGIONAL? So what does THAT mean?

I’ve had to spend quite a bit of time on the internet to figure it out. To cut a long story short, while not visible on previous ballot papers, a ‘regional’ component has apparently been lurking in the national electoral system all along. (Some readers might in fact be aware of this, but I’ve had to ratchet up my understanding.)

As voters know (well, hopefully), members of the National Assembly (NA) and provincial legislatures are elected in terms of proportional representation (PR). Instead of nominating candidates in constituencies, political parties compile ‘closed’ lists of candidates, who fill seats in proportion to the number of votes attracted by those parties.

The two-tier system

The single vote on a single national ballot paper thus far has made the election of the NA seem like a single PR process. However, it’s actually two-tier system, with a national and a regional component.

Specifically, there are 400 seats in the NA. Of these, 200 are filled with candidates on the national lists, but the other 200 are filled with candidates on nine sets of regional lists. (In practice, these ‘regions’ correspond to the provinces, but a different term is used to set this apart from the actual provincial elections.)

One assumes this is intended to ensure that at least some MPs are drawn from all the provinces, and are therefore more representative and hopefully more ‘accountable’. (Many people would argue this is a poor substitute for actual candidates in constituencies, but let’s leave that doggie snoozing in the yard.)

How it’s all worked out … well, sort of

So the whole thing works more or less like this:

·        Before the elections, parties submit national and regional lists of candidates to the IEC. (They also submit provincial lists, but let’s park that for now.)

·        Also before the elections, each of the nine regions (effectively the provinces) are given a portion of 200 seats in the NA, based on their total numbers of registered voters. (In other words, the bigger provinces, the more seats they get, and vice versa.)

·        Once the votes have been counted, parties are allocated an overall share of all 400 seats, in proportion to their shares of the total national vote.

·        Next, parties are allocated a share of the number of seats in each of the nine regions, in proportion to their shares of the votes in those regions. (While the number of seats vary from region to region, they always total 200.)

·        Lastly, parties are allocated a ‘compensatory’ share of the 200 national seats by subtracting their regional seats from their share of the 400 seats calculated in step one.

So basically, while we might not have been aware of it, we’ve been electing a bunch of regional representatives from party lists, and then a bunch of national representatives from party lists, to make up those parties’ overall quotas in the NA.

Previously, the regional and national components were calculated from a single ballot (in other words, those votes were not only counted nationally, but also regionally).

More about the third ballot

So here’s the thing: In this year’s election, this whole process will stay essentially the same, but the regional component will migrate to a separate ballot paper, together with the names of independent candidates. (The latter will only appear on this ballot, because by definition they aren’t political parties.)

The IEC’s attempted explanation of the ‘National Regional Ballot’ in its ‘Three Ballots Factsheet’ — seemingly its main attempt to explain the new ballot to voters. ‘National Regional Ballot’ is a rather unfortunate choice of term. By contrast, the actual ballot (which can be accessed on the IEC website) is just titled ‘REGIONAL’. To view it, click here.

This introduces some interesting new variables, and rather wild ones too. Previously, votes for national and regional seats were cast once, on a single ballot paper – in other words, they were indivisible. This time, while many people will vote for the same party on both the national and regional ballots, some will – by definition – vote for a party on the national ballot and an independent candidate on the other. Moreover, whether by accident or design, some might vote only for a party or independent candidate on the regional ballot paper, and not vote on the national ballot paper at all.

In order to compensate for this, the IEC will calculate step 1 (parties’ overall share of 400 seats, now minus any seats won by independent candidates) by combining the national and regional votes. Besides this, by definition, the independent candidates will not feature in this calculation.

The provincial ballots

As regards the provincial elections, the names of independent candidates will simply be added to the names of parties on a single ballot. Clearly, independent candates can only win one seat in a provincial legislature. The rest will be distributed proportionally among the relevant parties, in a singe-level process.

So there we are. By the way, this is still a hugely simplified explanation ­– for the full monty, including equations with a bunch of fractions, click here. But I’d suggest you fortify yourself in some way before you do.

If you feel all of this is a bit of a lashup, you’re not alone. Analysts believe this hasty solution to the independent candidate problem has introduced all sorts of anomalies, and that, after the elections, the whole system should be thoroughly revised and and rationalised.

Scrambling for an explanation

In the meantime, there are widespread fears that voters will be confused, and government, civil society and even private sector role players have been scurrying to try to explain it all – on the whole, not very successfully.

For the IEC’s valiant attempts, click here and here.

For an earnest but byzantine attempt from the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa (EISA), click here.

And for one of numerous wildly inaccurate efforts by the government news agency, click here. Among other things, it contrives to refer to a ‘Regional National Assembly’. Now there’s a curve ball for you …

Among numerous other things, the ballot is variously described as the National Regional Ballot, the Regional-to-National Ballot, and just the Regional Ballot. I eventually drilled down to the specimen ballots in the IEC website, and found that the ballots will simply be labelled ‘REGIONAL’, together with the province in question. Sorry, region.

It remains to be seen how the IEC and other role players are going to try to explain this to voters on election day. Dismayingly, there seems to be considerable room for living up to our national reputation.

FEATURED IMAGE: The start of the IEC’s ‘Three Ballots Factsheet’ — a major element in its drive to explain the new voting system to voters. To download the whole fact sheet, click here.



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