Why turnout should increase in the 2016 municipal elections

By Collette Schulz-Herzenberg, Stellenbosch University

The 2011 municipal election saw increases in both voter registration and turnout. The 2016 municipal election promises similar increases. Early indications are of strong voter turnout across the country’s 22 612 voting stations, according to the IEC. This bodes well for the quality of the election and more broadly for democracy.

Registration can be understood as a proportion of the overall voting age population (VAP), which consists of citizens over 18 years that are eligible to vote. The IEC has sought to increase registration among eligible South African citizens and the figures show a marked rise in registration among all eligible voters from 70% in the 2000 municipal election, to 72% in 2006, 75% in 2011 and now at 77% for the 2016 election. This means that 77% of all eligible voters can cast a vote today. It also means, however, that 33% of South Africans will not cast a vote because they are not registered. So, despite increases in the number of registered voters, a third of the entire eligible electorate is not voting.

It is not yet clear why so many South Africans choose not to participate in the elections. However, an Ipsos pre-election (Pulse of the People) survey conducted in July 2016 found that a third (33%) of registered voters agree (either “strongly agree” or “agree”) with the statement “I will seriously consider not voting in the 2016 municipal elections because I am unhappy with service delivery”. Moreover, the same survey finds that less than half (44%) says “Overall, I trust government to deliver effective services to the public”. This resonates with similar findings at the time of the 2011 municipal polls when an IEC survey found that political disillusionment was the primary reason (74%) given for not intending to register.

Voter turnout

Ensuring healthy public participation at the polls is one of the greatest challenges facing democracies worldwide. Over the past 20 years South Africa has experienced consistently higher voter turnout in national and provincial elections, at between 89% of registered voters of registered voters in 1999 and 73% in 2014. Turnout in local elections has been far lower at 48% in 2000 and 2006. However, the 2011 municipal elections broke this trend, with turnout rising to 58% – a 10% increase. Moreover, percentage and actual turnout increased in all nine provinces in the 2011 election compared with the 2006 and the 2000 elections.


When we consider turnout as a proportion of all eligible voters in South Africa a far lower proportion is active in local elections. Turnout as a proportion of all eligible voters (or the voting age population – VAP) remains unimpressive at between 34% and 44% since the 2000 local election. In 2011, 56% of eligibles did not participate, and yet this figure is an improvement from the 65% who did not participate in the 2006 local elections.

The disparity in turnout results between national and local elections is consistent with many other democracies, with electorates generally favoring the former over the latter. In South Africa, however, low turnout in local elections can also be attributed to a set of country-specific issues. The first is the unusually low level of citizen trust in local government institutions, political parties and party leaders. Public opinion surveys, including Afrobarometer, the Comparative National Elections Project surveys, and IEC/HSRC surveys) have repeatedly shown trust in these three institutions to be the lowest among all political institutions in South Africa. Lower turnout in local elections may also a consequence of high levels of frustration and dissatisfaction with governance and service delivery failures at the local level.

Yet there is a reason to expect another increase in voter turnout at this election. Political competition is an important factor for turnout. More competitive elections mobilise people to vote in greater proportions. This is because competitive elections increase political interest among voters. Uncertainty over outcomes also matters. If people think their preferred party can win but are unsure of the margin of victory, or perceive a tight contest, they understand that their vote becomes critical. They participate because their vote counts and can favourably affect the outcome of an election. The character of the 2016 election is distinctly competitive. Several metros have seen fiercely fought campaigns, with outcomes less than certain. Some pundits predict that the ANC might even lose its majority in South Africa’s economic hub of Johannesburg.

In addition, voters are also mobilised to vote when they perceive that there is a party that represents their interests. This presupposes a degree of choice for voters among the alternatives on offer. Arguably, as in the 2014 national election, voters are presented with a greater variety of choice in this election. The Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters offer voters very different alternatives, and both pose a tangible threat to the ANC, especially in urban centres.

The 2016 campaign leaves little room for complacency by the governing party. The competitive nature of the election campaign and a potentially wider variety of political options than ever before should mobilise voters to turn out in higher proportions than they have done in previous local elections.


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