Past voting patterns and what we can expect on August 3

Since 1999 the proportion of registered voters turning out to vote in national election has been declining. The turnout rate has declined from a high of 88% in 1999 to 73% of the 25-million voters registered in 2014. Over this period the average voter turnout rate in national elections was 78%.  Turnout in local government elections has consistently been lower than that of national elections. The average turnout rate in local government elections after 1999 was 50% – a full 28% less than the average for national elections.


In 2011 only 56% of registered voters took part in the local government election. While the drop off between national elections and the subsequent local government election has been declining it is still substantial. In the 2011 local government election the turnout rate was 21% lower than it was in the national elections two years earlier.


The gap between national and local government elections is largely due to local government being seen as less important. Local government elections do not determine who sits in Parliament and makes law, nor do they influence who is president or what national economic and fiscal policies are adopted. Local government largely deals with the mundane, albeit essential, issues of sanitation, water, electricity, roads, storm-water drains, etc. However the quality of these services, coupled, to the ever-rising cost of providing them ensures that local government is taking on increasing prominence in how decisions are made.


If the past trend in turnout rates continues we can expect approximately 55% of registered voters to cast ballots on August 3. This is a significant increase on the 48% of 2000 and 2006. Obviously the intention of political parties is to bring their voters to the polls and they will all be striving to increase the turnout rate among their constituencies. In particular the EFF is in a position to increase the turnout rate. By appealing to the youth and marginalised the EFF may bring to the voting booth many people that had become disillusioned with politics and abstained from voting. The more disillusion voters can be persuaded to return to the booth the higher the turnout rate.


In past local government elections there was been a relationship between turnout rates and election outcomes (the pattern is not as clear for national elections). In effect the higher the turnout rate the lower to percentage of votes cast for the ruling party. If the turnout rate increases the proportion of votes cast for the ANC is likely to decline and vice versa. The primary reason for this is that higher turnout rates bring an increasing proportion of marginal voters to the polls. These marginal voters are somewhat more likely to vote for opposition parties than habitual voters are.


In the past the ruling party tended to fare better in national elections than in local government elections. The ANC gets, on average, five percent more votes in national elections. However this gaps have been decreasing. Between the 2009 and 2011 elections the drop-off in ANC support was only 3%. If a similar drop-off occurs between 2014 and 2016 the ANC can be expected to get 58% of the vote on 3 August. This decline is roughly consistent with a simple projection of the previous levels of ANC support in local elections.


Projecting past trends offers some insight into what can be expected in August. However projections rest on an assumption that the wider environment has either been consistent or has changed in consistent ways throughout the projection period. If the environment changes significantly the projections will be off. Moreover there are several factors indicating that the environment is indeed changing. On the one hand there are the political factors like the exclusion of the NFP from the polls and the EFF contesting local elections for the first time. On the other hand are other, in many ways more important, economic factors like declining household incomes coupled to high inflation in foods and administered prices (including local government services). These factors may well contribute to small shifts away from what can be projected.

Michael O’ Donovan


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