A silent majority: Who will represent the non-voters?

By Published On: 10th December 2021

Image source: Pexels

Now that the votes have been tallied, it is clear that South Africa’s local government elections have produced a distinct voting anomaly: less than a third of adults participated in the vote.

Instead of focusing on which party governs in particular areas, the low levels of voter registration and turnout suggest that there is a more fundamental question to ask after these elections: How representative is our democracy? The core principle of democracy – translated literally as ‘people power’ – relies on public participation. South Africans understand the importance of majority rule better than most. So how did an election occur with only a minority being represented?

Trends in turnout

Voter turnout is equally as important as calculating parties’ vote share for interpreting election results. The degree to which people feel free or compelled to participate in elections is an indicator of public confidence in institutions. In the infancy of South Africa’s democracy, voter turnout was high. The iconic images of snaking queues in 1994 were testament to the long struggle for equal political rights.

Between 2009 and 2019, however, voter turnout at national elections declined from 77% to 66%. Turnout at local elections was steady, but low, in both 2011 and 2016 at 58%. Voter turnout in November’s elections was only 46%. But these figures only tell half of the story of who votes in elections. Turnout is measured as the share of registered voters who vote on election day. What about all those who are not even registered to vote?

A silent majority?

Over the last decade, the size of the voting-age population has grown considerably faster than the length of the voters’ roll. As an example, if unregistered voters counted as a single voting bloc in 2019, they would have won more seats in Parliament than the DA and EFF combined.

For the recent elections, the IEC declared that there were just over 26 million registered voters. For context, there are roughly 40 million adults in South Africa, so only two-in-three adults are registered to vote.

At a voter turnout of only 46%, there were around 12 million votes counted. There were more registered voters that stayed away from the polls than those who cast their ballots, as well as a slightly larger share of adults who have not even registered to vote. At this level of turnout, close to 27 million adults will not have exercised their democratic rights to elect their representatives.

Local government councils across the country will be elected and formed with only a minority of the public’s input. A voter turnout of 46% represents a political crisis far beyond internal party factions or the messy business of coalition-building. Low voter turnout, combined with the rising number of unregistered voters, suggests that our democracy is becoming increasingly unrepresentative.

Trust deficit

One of the primary reasons for low levels of voter registration and turnout is the lack of trust between citizens and their representatives. Public opinion data from the 2021 Afrobarometer survey shows that most South Africans’ have little trust in their representatives. This perception is more negative now than it has been over the last decade.

Most respondents to the 2019 South African Reconciliation Barometer agreed that voting is pointless because all parties are the same and many South Africans believe that their vote makes no difference. These surveys cannot claim to represent the views of all South Africans, but they are nationally representative and offer a broad overview of public sentiment. After a decade where unemployment has risen, gains in poverty reduction have reversed and government corruption has gone largely unpunished, South Africans are presented with a Hobson’s choice between voting for political parties perceived by many to be untrustworthy or not voting at all.

The unrest from July has viscerally shown the consequences of a leadership crisis, where citizens feel unhappy with their circumstances and ignored by their representatives. Millions of people are increasingly opting out of the voting process. While political parties eagerly interpret the results of the election, who will represent the non-voters?

To fully understand the state of our democracy, it would be prudent to reduce the partisan noise and instead listen to those who are choosing not to vote. Non-voters may be our silent majority.

Mikhail Moosa, Project Leader for the South African Reconciliation Barometer (SARB)

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