South Africa


Silent protest: Number of spoilt votes marginally up from last municipal polls

Silent protest: Number of spoilt votes marginally up from last municipal polls
An IEC official prepares a ballot during the 2021 South African municipal elections on 1 November 2021 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Alet Pretorius)

This year’s local government elections saw a small increase in spoilt votes. Tarnishing the ballot might not get much attention but it’s a significant act of protest by members of an electorate largely unsatisfied with formal politics in South Africa.

While low voter turnout is one indicator of the electorate’s disillusionment with democracy, spoilt votes are another sign of discontent. 

By 10pm on Wednesday, close to 2% of votes counted in this year’s local government election were spoilt votes. This was a marginal increase from 2016, where 1.83% of votes were spoilt.  

As political analyst Asanda Ngoasheng explains, the spoilt vote is traditionally an act of protest.  

“It can be a protest against the entire electoral system as insufficient for people’s voices to be heard,” she said.  

It can also be a protest vote against specific political parties or the reality that citizens can only speak out legitimately once every five years outside of public participation platforms.  

“It is understandable that in a lacklustre democracy like ours that people would be upset. They have been voting for political parties for decades with little to no change to their personal experiences.” 

Spoiling a ballot is an entirely democratic decision. According to political scientist Steven Friedman, “spoiling a ballot is a greater contribution to democracy than staying at home, as it signals that voters value taking part in the democratic process even if they can’t find a party to support,” he wrote in a Business Day column.  

However, he called it a “blunt instrument” that fails to send an effective message of defiance unless there’s a marked jump in the number of spoilt ballots. Alternatively, it could mean more voter education is needed on how to correctly mark one’s “x”. 

The idea that “my vote won’t make a difference” is also a driving force behind delegitimising one’s vote

By 10.30pm on Wednesday, 91% of votes had been counted. DM


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