South Africa

EXPLAINER

Election 2024 what-ifs and what-nows — abandoned ballot boxes, wonky voter scanners and long, long queues

Election 2024 what-ifs and what-nows — abandoned ballot boxes, wonky voter scanners and long, long queues
Villa Liza residents in Ekurhuleni queue to cast their votes on election day, 29 May 2024. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Wednesday, 29 May was election day in South Africa, and millions turned out for what proved a surprisingly long process. Queues as long as those last seen in 1994 might be a sign of higher turnout, but could also reflect inefficient processes. We look at the day’s talking points.

Why did the queues seem so much longer than normal this election?

It depends who you ask. The IEC acknowledged “glitches” in voting procedures, particularly in the morning, but essentially attributed long queues to high voter turnout.

“Suffice to say, it will probably be well beyond the 66% we had in 2019,” IEC CEO Sy Mamabolo told journalists at the national results centre in Midrand on Wednesday evening.

Political party agents at the centre took a very different view, with one calling the voting “a mess”. Problems with full ballot boxes, malfunctioning voter management devices — or “scanners” — and people abandoning queues as the day wore on were flooding in thick and fast before voting closed on Wednesday evening.

EFF leader Julius Malema suggested that the voting delays were deliberate on the IEC’s side, as part of a nefarious (ludicrous) plot to extend voting for a day and tamper with the ballot boxes overnight.

Needless to say, Mamabolo denied this. “There are no deliberate delays on the part of the commission,” he said.

Some have called for an additional day of voting due to the delays on Wednesday, which may have deterred some voters. Is this a possibility?

Chapter 3 (17) of the Electoral Act says that when an election of the National Assembly is called, a “single day and date for voting” must be set.

Chapter 36 (7) says that voting hours may be extended “until as late as midnight on that voting day”.

There appears to be no clear provision in South African electoral law for tacking on an additional day of voting.

Mamabolo said the IEC had no plans for a second day of voting, and “we’ve never entertained such a plan”. To do so would be “very complicated”, because of the issue of what to do with ballots cast on the first day, and where to store them overnight.

I saw a video showing ballot boxes abandoned in a field in Limpopo. What was going on there?

IEC deputy CEO Masego Sheburi explained at an afternoon briefing that this was the result of two empty ballot boxes in Limpopo being removed from a voting station during special voting and discarded.

“The incident ought not to have happened,” Sheburi said — but the ballot boxes were empty of votes.

“We can assure you that no cast ballots were placed at risk in that instance,” the deputy CEO said.

Someone I know went to vote and was only given one ballot paper, for the national vote, and not the regional or provincial ballot papers. How did that happen?

There were, unfortunately, a number of reports of this happening, although they are yet to be categorically verified.

It’s unclear how this could have happened: a question to the IEC about it at the Wednesday afternoon briefing went unanswered.

But it’s perhaps telling that a Wednesday evening memo sent to presiding officers by the IEC contained the following directive: “Be reminded that where a voter is registered in your Voting District, please issue all three (3) ballots, not just one (1) ballot as may be indicated by VMD [voter management device]”.

I heard that in some places the ballot boxes were full and there were no backups.

Ballot boxes reaching capacity earlier than expected was probably the result of the long ballot papers.

“It shouldn’t be like that,” was all Mamabolo could offer on Wednesday evening: “Nobody should be turned away on the basis that ballot boxes are full.” 

How could some voting stations open late due to an apparent shortage of ballot papers? Doesn’t the IEC send enough ballot papers to each voting station based on the number of voters registered there?

The issue of late opening was not a question of inadequate supplies, Sheburi said. It was as a result of the vehicles and security needed to escort the materials. Because one vehicle sometimes needed to deliver to multiple sites, some voting stations were delayed in receiving the ballots until close to 9am.

I know someone who was registered at a station but when they arrived, they were told they weren’t on the voters’ roll.

There have been multiple reports of this kind. Much of it probably comes down to confusion over the new Section 24a provision, which prevented people from voting at any station other than the one at which they were registered. Sheburi suggested that in isolated incidents, it might also have been the case that presiding officers were consulting the voters’ roll without consulting the Section 24a list.

Some people reported their three marked ballots were placed in three separate boxes, others that they all went into one. Does this matter?

No, said Mamabolo. Three ballot boxes are recommended because it obviously assists with the sorting of ballots and means votes can be counted quicker, but if only one box was used it has no bearing on the treatment or integrity of the votes cast.

What was going on with the scanners? It seemed like there were big problems with them across the country.

Mamabolo said that the performance of the voter management devices was inconsistent even within a single municipality.

“When you use the internet, there are many variables at play,” the CEO said.

Some of the issues related to infrastructure, software, bandwidth and traffic, he suggested. But he was at pains to stress that the scanners were basically a nice-to-have. They are not a legally required part of the voting process, and all voting stations were provided with an analogue voters’ roll as backup.

When can we expect the results?

The IEC technically has seven days to declare the results, though Mamabolo said the body had no desire to leave the country “in suspense” for so long.

Counting is supposed to take longer than normal, however, because of the extra ballot sheet to be reckoned with. So whereas the first results generally start trickling in at around 1am on the morning after the election, Mamabolo warned that this time around the results may start arriving somewhat later.

Could I be turned away if I was still in the voting queue at 9pm?

Absolutely not. Mamabolo was adamant about this on Wednesday evening, even as reports were coming in of at least one voting station’s presiding officials wrongly telling voters that they had to be within the premises of the voting property by 9pm to cast their vote.

“The commission wishes to reiterate that all voters who arrive at the voting station before 21h00 will be allowed to vote, even if it takes beyond the closing time to complete the process,” an IEC statement said.

An IEC memo sent to presiding officers on Wednesday evening read: “All voters that are in the queue whether or not they are inside the voting stations must be assisted.” DM

Gallery

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