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Strike down the Electoral Amendment Act - it has been a mess from the beginning

- Wits University

Fifty percent of all the voters might cast their vote for just one wonderful independent. How many seats would that half of the electorate have in Parliament?

I was on the Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) advising the government on how to respond to the Constitutional Court ruling in favour of the right of independent candidates to contest national and provincial elections. I was also part of the bare majority in the MAC whose recommended response, an additional member system, was rejected.

I support a challenge to the new electoral law in the Constitutional Court, not on the grounds that it unfairly burdens prospective independent candidates, but exclusively on the grounds that the new electoral system has the potential to undermine the constitutional requirement of proportionality.

To be frank, this electoral reform process has been a mess from the beginning.

For a start, the New Nation Movement’s complaint on behalf of the right of independents to stand for election misidentified the problems with South Africa’s outgoing system.

That system has actually served the country pretty adequately, guaranteeing fair representation of all of the country’s interest and opinion groups. To the extent that there was a problem with it, the problem was not the absence of independent candidates, but the absence of local representation or of direct accountability to voters on the part of members of Parliament.

The Constitutional Court earnestly affirmed the right of South Africans to stand independently of parties, a reasonable reading of the Constitution.

But the ConCourt does not consist of electoral system experts, and it did not sufficiently consider the possible consequences of tweaking just one element of a complex electoral structure.

The ConCourt was misdirected by plaintiffs, but it has to share some blame here for the debacle. Its judgment left politicians too little time to effect a significant constitutional change.

The unsurprising response of the ANC government to this time pressure was to opt for a reform that accommodates the ConCourt judgment with as little disruption as possible, which is what it did.

But the result is not good.

There are only two natural ways to accommodate independent candidates in a proportional electoral system.

One is through an additional or mixed member system, a variant of which is already operative in local government and a different variant of which the MAC majority recommended. Here independents can compete with party-supported candidates to win the single seat at stake in a constituency.

The other is through a system of ranked preference voting for individual candidates, such as Single Transferable Vote, which allows independent and party-supported candidates to compete with each other in multi-member constituencies.

Instead, the government opted for the MAC minority recommendation in favour of simply inserting independent candidates into the existing system of closed party-list proportional representation. This creates a unique hybrid in which independents have no natural place.

The problem, which I identified from the beginning in the MAC discussions, is that in such a hybrid there is no adequate way of dealing with excess votes that accrue to an independent candidate.

An independent is one person, and can only fill one seat. A successful independent candidate in effect cheats their own voters out of representation — in this scenario, out of 199 seats worth of representation.

On the general question of accommodating independents, I have mixed views. There is no reason why a person should not be able to stand independently of parties, but there is also a risk that a proliferation of independents will weigh down ballot sheets, confuse voters and result in MPs who, between elections, are accountable to no one but themselves.

A fair proportion will be opportunists and local “Big Men”. Still, there are electoral systems that can “safely” accommodate them. The newly adopted one cannot.

Things might work out fine, proportionality-wise, if not too many independents stand or they do not win too many votes. That might even be the most likely scenario.

But if popular independents win votes that exceed the number required to win one seat, or lots of independents win votes that fall short of the number required to win the next seat, many votes will be wasted.

That risk exists, and it ought to be sufficient grounds for the ConCourt to strike down the new act, require that the 2024 elections be held under the now-outgoing system, and that a new system be devised in time for the 2029 elections that offers a democratically safe way of accommodating independents.

The grounds for striking down the new Act should be that it threatens the constitutional requirement of proportionality. It cannot be that it burdens independents with tougher eligibility requirements or tougher quota thresholds: indeed the new hybrid provides a reasonable path for independent candidates to win seats, a better chance than they would have in many of the world’s electoral systems.

In that sense, it meets the ConCourt’s narrow requirement. The real threat posed by the new system is to fair — by which I mean proportional — representation of voters.

 This article was first published in the Daily Maverick.