South Africa

Elections 2014: All that spoiling but not much fight

By Paul Berkowitz 13 May 2014

The “Sidikiwe! Vukani! Vote No!” campaign has been claiming some success for the ANC’s failure to achieve two-thirds of the vote. It’s an idea with obvious appeal to those who want to see some direct cause-and-effect at play in their politics. Unfortunately, it’s not a claim that stands up to closer scrutiny. By PAUL BERKOWITZ.

There’s the classic joke about the Jew who is shipwrecked on a desert island and found years later. Before he’s airlifted to safety he insists on giving his rescue party a private tour of his estate. He shows them the coconut distillery, the solar-powered shower, the mats woven from palm fronds. Finally, he shows him the two synagogues he’s built. ‘Why do you need two synagogues?’ they ask him. ‘This one is where I pray and that one I wouldn’t be caught dead in.’

The punchline has a lot to do with the Jewish love for fareibels (long-standing feuds) but it could be describing the joys of democracy. This is the party I vote for and that is the party that I wouldn’t piss on if it caught fire. Democracy is all about choices.

You can take it a step further, like Mark Renton, and choose not to make a choice at all. Stay at home on election day, don’t make your mark, don’t pass Go and don’t pick up 400 new MPs. That’s also a choice.

You can also choose to spoil your vote, to register your displeasure with the limited choices on offer. That’s partly the idea behind the Sidikiwe! campaign: if you like democracy but dislike all the politicians and parties on offer then you can vote for change. Of a sort.

The problem with spoiling your vote (or even staying at home) is that it’s a particularly muddy signal to send. There’s no difference in the official voting record between a vote that’s been deliberately spoiled and one that’s been spoiled by accident. Nobody will ever know whether you drew a cross that sprawled across two candidates or whether you drew moustaches on every photograph.

Every election has a few voters that fall into the former group: the ones who coloured outside the lines or whose pencils broke when making their marks. You can write the filthiest words on your ballot and, apart from an offended IEC official, nobody will ever know.

Of course, we can use science to measure the extent of the spoiled votes in this past election and compare this to previous elections. What do the numbers tell us? The table below summarises the number of votes cast in these elections, the percentage of those votes that were spoiled and the turnout of voters on the day. It also compares these numbers to the two previous elections.

2014

2009

2004

Valid votes

18 402 497

17 680 729

15 612 671

Spoilt votes

252 274

239 237

250 887

Total votes

18 654 771

17 919 966

15 863 558

Registered voters

25 388 082

23 181 997

20 674 923

Spoilt %

1.4%

1.3%

1.6%

Turnout

73.5%

77.3%

76.7%

There’s not much in it, is there? About 1.4% of all votes cast in these elections were spoiled, compared with 1.3% in the 2009 elections. In fact, if you look at the numbers to two decimal places it’s the difference between 1.35% and 1.34% of all votes cast. There is nothing separating the two elections. The highest incidence of spoiled votes was in the 2004 elections, way before a bunch of disillusioned ex-politicians tried to convince us of the virtues of spoiling.

The Vote No crowd have gone on about the spoiled votes being the sixth- or fifth- or somethingth-biggest bloc of votes, which is true. But it’s true in every election, and it’s a function of the concentration of political power in the three or four biggest parties, not a reflection of the power of the ‘No’ vote.

The campaign is being driven by the aforementioned erstwhile politicians, and it’s strangely comforting to see that, while they may be out of office and out of power, they’ve lost none of the powers of self-delusion and self-importance. The numbers, however, don’t lie. The actual number of spoiled votes was almost unchanged from 2004, at around 250,000, despite the fact that there were almost three million more votes in these elections than ten years ago.

The ANC did fail to get two-thirds of the vote, as it has in every election bar the 2004 election. This isn’t attributable to the spoiled votes, but rather to the lower turnout figures. About 77% of all registered voters came out in 2004 and 2009 to vote. The comparable figure for 2014 was less than 74%.

People who chose not to choose did so, overwhelmingly, by staying at home. This is a more intuitive and rational approach if you’re disillusioned with the whole democracy thing. Why would you take time out of your last public holiday until June to send a signal which nobody except you would ever receive, a signal which you can send almost as clearly and with far more convenience by just staying home?

Seriously, why would you? Because a bunch of former politicians told you to be creative with your apathy? The trend of lower voter turnout is a real trend, and one worth investigating in more detail. The trend in spoiled votes is unchanged, and absolutely nobody cares about those votes, apart from a handful of scandalised vote-counters and the Sidikiwe crowd. DM

Photo: An election official applies ink to the fingers of a voter at Ntolwane Primary School in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal on Wednesday, 7 May 2014 where she was about to cast her vote. Picture: Gordano Stolley/SAPA

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