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Early Voting in the South African 2024 Elections: Any Lessons for Nigeria?

*By Uchenna Aja

On May 29th, 2024, South Africans went to the polls for their general elections for the seventh time in its three decades of multi-racial democracy. This election was highly contested with new political dynamics affecting the voting pattern and vote shares for political parties in the 9 provinces. As evidenced in the outcome of the election, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) which has always won the majority of the votes and by implication, seats in parliament since the end of apartheid in 1994 received only 40% of the national votes with 159 seats. The dwindling support and popularity of the ANC have been attributed to various factors some of which include the adequate response to the rising unemployment rate (at 32.9%), persistent economic inequalities; corruption, and inadequate public service, particularly in rural areas. With a registered voter strength of 27.7 million, only 16.2 million South Africans voted during the election with a 58.64% turnout rate. This is the lowest voter turnout rate when compared to previous general elections showing that the growing distrust of the people in the government may have also contributed to the disinterest in the voting process. 

Despite the relatively low turnout of voters, the South African Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) has received remarkable praise from domestic and international observers for the level of transparency and efficiency observed in the electoral process, which provides a model for other African democratic countries. A special feature of the South African electoral process that has attracted widespread attention is the early (special) voting mechanism. Ahead of the May 29th, 2024 General Elections, the polls opened for the ‘Early Voting’ system on May 27th. The South African IEC noted that approximately 1.6 million out of the 27.7 registered voters were allowed to cast their ballots on a designated date prior to the general elections. As part of the early voting process, the polling units were opened for early voting on May 27th and 28th while the designated electoral officials also visited about 624,000 persons with mobility issues due to old age, physical infirmities, or pregnancy at home to give them an opportunity to exercise their franchise. 

The concept of early voting is used in South Africa to make provisions for individuals who would be engaged on election day or who would not be physically available to vote on the election date to exercise their right to vote before the general elections. Early voting allows qualified voters to cast their ballots ahead of time, usually a few days before the official election day. In South Africa, early voting is meant to give voters flexibility and guarantee that everyone who is verified to vote has the opportunity to take part in the electoral process. It is a crucial element of the electoral system that promotes increased participation and voter turnout. 

Early voting in South Africa is enshrined in law by the South African Electoral Act 73 of 1998, Section 33, which provides for the conduct of a special voting procedure for persons who will not be physically available to vote on the election date. 

The two most important guidelines in determining the suitability of an individual to participate in the special voting are that the applicant is registered as a voter; and there is evidence that the person cannot vote on the general election day due to directly or indirectly participating in the conduct of the election, physical infirmity or disability, or pregnancy.  The act also empowers the IEC to determine other categories of persons who should be given special voting privileges.  

In view of this legislation, every election year, as was done in 2024, the South African IEC sets out guidelines for applying for the early (special) voting category and establishes modalities to ensure that all qualified citizens participate in the voting process. The adoption of the early voting system in South Africa has helped to improve the participation of citizens in the electoral process. As a result, every qualified citizen in South Africa is given an opportunity to participate in electing their leaders. This serves as a model for other African democratic countries yet to adopt any form of early special voting to improve the level of citizens’ participation in the voting process. 

As Nigeria celebrates 25 years of its democracy under the 4th Republic, there have been calls to strengthen the democratic ethos through a renewal of the social contract with Nigerians. This includes an improvement in the electoral process and the need to make elections inclusive and participatory for all citizens. In Nigeria, the right to vote is a fundamental right derived from the rights of Nigerians to participate in the governance of their country, as embedded in the Constitution and other human rights obligations, both nationally and internationally. 

However, over the years, certain categories of persons such as security personnel, electoral officials, ad-hoc electoral officials, accredited domestic election observers, and other key actors on election days, have been disenfranchised from participating in the voting process. In the 2023 general elections, INEC employed approximately 1.4 million ad-hoc staff (this figure excludes the permanent INEC staff, Resident Electoral Commissioners and other INEC officials) who by their work on election day, were not able to vote. In addition to this number are the accredited election observers, media reporters/journalists, and security agents deployed for their important work on election day, who are not able to vote. Taking into account these categories of persons, it is possible to estimate that over 2 million Nigerians who are eligible voters do not get to exercise their right to vote. While the figure isn’t infallible, it provides insight into the huge number of Nigerians who are disenfranchised from the voting process by virtue of their roles in the conduct of elections.  

This is why Nigeria needs to adopt the early voting process implemented in countries such as South Africa, as it will allow these professionals, who would primarily be involved during the election days, to cast their votes at a stipulated date before the main election. It will also ensure that this large number of our voting population is not unintendedly disenfranchised from exercising their civic right.

The adaptability of this early voting process in Nigeria is possible with the right legislative action of reviewing the Electoral Act and the institutional mechanisms on the part of INEC. A bill to introduce early voting in our electoral process has passed its first reading in the Senate. It is important that the government, especially the legislature, expedite the passage of this bill and the adoption of early voting mechanisms ahead of the 2027 election. This will create an avenue for individuals deployed for election day duties to be allowed to perform their civic responsibilities and exercise their voting rights so that NO citizen is disenfranchised from voting. 

Uchenna Aja is with the Yiaga Africa Centre for Legislative Engagement. The article was also published by Premium Times here.

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