South Africa

If you register them, will they vote?

By Paul Berkowitz 2 July 2013

We’re about 11 months away from the 2014 national/provincial elections and the air is thick with politics and politicking. Agang is officially now a political party and no longer just a ‘platform’. The Julius and Floyd Show (working title: Economic Freedom Fighters, or EFF) took even less time to grow from a ‘forum’ into a party-in-waiting. The ANC and DA are in perpetual campaigning mode, while the allure of seats in the national assembly has brought all of the bit players and part-time politicians out of the woodwork. All are wildly optimistic about their chances next year, and many are focusing on their appeal to the youth. Just how important is this youth vote that has captured so many headlines? By PAUL BERKOWITZ.

The myth of the Born-Frees

It seems that the time for dithering and smiling enigmatically at reporters is over. Political figures have stopped pretending that they are building platforms or creating forums for political dialogue and are now actively campaigning and canvassing for votes and support.

Much has been made of the votes of the youth, particularly the ‘born-frees’, in the past few weeks. The emphasis on the symbolism of this cohort is understandable, while the emphasis on its size is not, as will be seen below.

Those born between April/May 1993 and April/May 1996 will be eligible to vote in their first elections next year. They’ll be aged between 18 and 21 on election day and there will be about three million of them. They have been dubbed the Born-Frees and they’ve been co-opted as a sort of demographic short-hand and metaphor for a South Africa born into freedom, unshackled from the past, free-thinking and independent.

The Born-Free tag has an obvious appeal to journalists looking for an easy hook on which to hang a story. It is an easy synonym for freedom, choice, and a population with its eyes on the future. Any party that could lay claim to the largest chunk of the Born-Free vote could also appropriate these concepts.

Both of the prominent new parties (Mamphela Ramphele’s Agang and Julius Malema’s EFF) are laying claim to this voting bloc. The EFF in particular has been boosted by a recent Pondering Panda survey of the youth, which indicated that a quarter of the youth would consider voting for the party.

The reality of the youth vote

The youth vote may seem like a glittering prize to some parties, but the reality is that it’s mostly costume jewellery – at least as things stand at the moment. The graph below is reproduced from the IEC’s website and shows the total number of registered voters as at 1 July 2013.

If the elections were to be held tomorrow, about 150,000 teens would be eligible to vote. In the unlikely event that they all voted, the EFF could expect to receive about 38,000 votes based on the Pondering Panda projections.

Of course, there’s a lot that will happen between now and the elections, and we’ll go through the process in a bit more detail, but as things stand the biggest potential source of votes is the 30- and 40-somethings. That’s unlikely to change by next year’s election.

Here’s a simplified model of the voting pool. The number of potential voters, based on the figures in the most recent mid-year population estimate is about 34 million. There are currently 23 million registered voters, or some two-thirds (67%) of the potential voters. The comparison between potential and actual registered voters (i.e. the comparison between the IEC’s figures and StatsSA’s population figures is given in the table below:

The percentage of potential voters registered rises for each subsequent age cohort, from 8% for the teens to 48% for the 20-somethings, all the way to a mathematically impossible 160% for the over-80s. (This last figure can be partly explained by the fact that some deceased voters might still be on the voting roll).

This trend is intuitive once we understand the registration process. A person can register as a voter from the age of 16 (although s/he can only vote from the age of 18), and, once you’re on the voters’ roll, you are only removed in the case of death.

The vast majority of registrations occur during specially-announced registration weekends. There are normally two or three of these in the lead-up to a major election. The IEC will probably declare at least two such weekends between now and next year’s election.

These registration weekends only really target unregistered voters. If we assume that registration drives target all unregistered voters, regardless of age, there will be fewer and fewer unregistered voters as the age cohorts become older and older.

Any South African who is 40 or older would have been eligible to vote from 1994 onwards. S/he would have been eligible for all eight major elections from 1994 onwards (four national/provincial, four municipal) and might have been subjected to around 20 voter registration drives. There is very little difference between the percentage of registered 40-somethings and the percentage of registered 50-somethings, 60-somethings or 70-somethings.

Someone who is 25 today would only have been eligible for the 2011, 2009 and (possibly) 2006 elections. S/he might have had five or so opportunities to register as a voter.

Those 18- 19- and 20-year-olds who are eligible to vote for the first time will not all register to vote, if the historical trends are anything to go by. Realistically, between 20% and 30% will register to vote, or between 600,000 and 900,000. At best that will equate to between 3% and 4% of the registered voter pool.

Of course, the next challenge is to get those registered voters to actually show up on the day and make their cross. In the 2011 elections about 13.4 million of the 23 million registered voters showed up on the day – about 58% of all registered voters. This was a fairly high turnout for a municipal election, but was slightly lower than the historical turnout for national/provincial elections.

The actual turnout on the day is the function of another set of assumptions and trends. What is likely, however, is that voter turnout is relatively lower for younger voters. As my fiancée said wryly, “If they want the youth to vote, they shouldn’t make the election a public holiday.”

That might be an unfair, unscientific dig at the youth voters of the country. Perhaps the EFF, Agang and other parties will inspire the youth to register and to vote in unprecedented numbers. If global trends are anything to go by (and there’s no good reason to think otherwise) then the youth will not make a great showing come election day.

Of course, to the different parties, it really depends what you want from the youth vote. Apart from the obvious bragging rights of being ‘the party of the future’, a vote is a vote, and 0.25% of the total vote is equal to a seat in the national assembly. If you are Julius, Floyd (and now Kenny), then 2% or so of the national vote will do just dandy to get you a comfortable job on Parliament Street for you and your good chums. If you are Agang, with ambitions of being a kingmaker, your expectation will be much higher. Putting too many eggs in your newest, shiniest basket may not be the best strategy. DM

Photo by Reuters.

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