The importance of taking part in an election by casting a vote cannot be overemphasised. In every election the trajectory and future of the society or community is at stake.
A vote can either be on the one hand for a particular person or group, such as a political party, or on the other hand for a specific issue. So, a vote could be for who is to be the President (one person as opposed to other candidates) or which persons will sit as parliamentarians and make the laws.
Or a vote could be for how the limited funds available to society are to be distributed and utilised. Would it be better to spend on caring for the aged, for education for the young, for housing, for health services or for the safety and security of citizens or members of society. A vote could also be for or against a single issue, known as a referendum. Obvious examples are the June 2016 Brexit vote (51% voted for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union — 72% of registered voters voted) and the 1983 constitutional referendum in South Africa — the white population were given the opportunity to approve or reject a constitution in which coloured and Indian South Africans would be represented in separate parliamentary chambers, while black (African) South Africans would remain unrepresented. (66.3% of voters voted ‘Yes’ and a ‘new’ constitution — still racist in nature — came into operation in 1984. 76% of registered voters turned up.)
Another type of single issue vote that comes to mind is the many no confidence motions and votes in the National Assembly of President Zuma. President survived each of parliamentary votes to oust from office.
There can be little doubt that the casting of a vote is important, for two interelated reasons. First, and obviously, it can and usually does have a significant effect on the lives of all. If Hillary Clinton, and not Donald Trump had become the President of the US in 2016, the US, and indeed the world may have developed so differently.
And if all those who were entitled to vote on Brexit had done so would the UK have remained in the EU? And if the no confidence votes in President Zuma had gone the other way South African politics and the lives of all South Africans would probably very different today. Secondly, the grant of a vote indicates in the words of the Constitutional Court: “the universality of the franchise is important not only for nationhood and democracy. The vote of each and every citizen is a badge of dignity and of personhood. Quite literally, it says that everybody counts.” The case arose in the context of whether sentenced prisoners should be allowed to vote.
The Constitutional Court ruled that the government had not put sufficient evidence to justify prisoners being denied the vote. Interestingly the Supreme Court of Canada voted 5-4 that prisoners should be allowed to vote. One judge’s vote in the case made all the difference. In its judgment, the Canadian court stated: “The right of all citizens to vote, regardless of virtue or mental ability or other distinguishing features, underpins the legitimacy of Canadian democracy and Parliament’s claim to power.
A government that restricts the franchise to a select portion of citizens is a government that weakens its ability to function as the legitimate representative of the excluded citizens, jeopardises its claims to representative democracy, and erodes the basis of its right to convict and punish law-breakers.”
Apart from the prisoner issue other topics that arise are the age of voting. President Mandela famously suggested in 1994 that 14 year old should enjoy the vote. Greece in 1952, Switzerland in 1971 and Saudi Arabia in 2015 allowed women to vote for the first time. Today women can vote in every country that has elections. What about the vote for those who are mentally challenged, and are so compromised they need to be institutionalised? And citizens who reside in foreign countries?
On a practical level, how is an electoral commission to organise voting in many different paces. In Australia, South African citizens could vote in elections in person in Canberra, but not the other cities, such as Sydney and Perth. So, a South African citizen living in Perth or Sydney would need to fly to Canberra to exercise their right to vote. But the government argued that it would have been too expensive to organize voting stations and personnel in all places where South African citizens resided, worked and studied.
A critical aspect in all elections is the weighting given to all votes. At the United Nations, in the General Assembly each Member State has one vote. Is that fair, bearing in mind the huge disparity in populations and contributions by each Member? And in the US each state has two senators representing it in the Senate. California with a population of almost 40 million has two senators as does Wyoming with a population of a little more than half a million. But there is an attempt to balance that disparity by granting states a greater or lesser number of representatives in the House of Representatives; California has 53 seats and Wyoming just 1 seat.
South Africa’s challenges are and have been for the independent electoral commission to register and collect the details of all voters. Without proper registration an election cannot take place. Addresses are important in order to avoid voters being bussed to pack one municipal election. Also, the method of choosing the President is effectively through the election of the leader of the governing political party. That process has its advantages, but can also lead to unfortunate party patronage and corruption. Obviously, those in power have an interest in remaining in power, and the temptation to rig or manipulate elections to achieve that outcome is ever present.
Ultimately, voting is simply a method for a group of persons to get together to make a collective decision or express an opinion. In order for the election to be free fair and credible there are a range of many challenges that can and often do occur. An election, and the process leading up to it utilises resources and is usually expensive. But the challenge for authorities is to produce a fair election system recognising the rights of all, bearing in mind the costs and the many options available. It must never be forgotten that voting can and does make a difference.
What gets decided and who gets elected to represent the voters’ interests inevitably makes a difference to all our lives on many different levels. And exercising the right to vote has a direct impact on those differences.
Anton Katz SC is the Chair of the Electoral Commission of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (Cape Council). The Electoral Commission is a three person independent body overseeing elections to the Cape Council. He is also a senior counsel practicing at the Cape Bar. Katz encourages all those eligible to vote in elections to do so.
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