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The Electoral Commission of SA (IEC) has told SA missions to ask their host countries to provide voting booths and ballot boxes when SA citizens abroad cast their votes in the coming elections.

The move, probably due to cost-cutting, is causing discomfort with diplomats as the election and all its processes are supposed to be uniquely South African and run according to strict election regulations.

Allowing nonstandardised voting materials for the voting process — specifically the branding of other countries’ election commission booths and ballot boxes — will taint the integrity of the ballots being cast, some diplomats told Business Day.

The instruction has baffled diplomats as the IEC has provided all voting materials and promotional branding items to them in the past. But in a recent instruction from the commission, the missions are provided with a pro forma note verbale, which they must complete before sending it to host countries’ foreign departments and election entities.

The suggested wording in the note verbale is: “The SA embassy/high commission/consulate is also hereby kindly requesting assistance for the provision of voting booths and locked voting boxes if possible, from ... (the IEC equivalent in the country of accreditation) in which the ballots can be kept safe until dispatch. Should the request be favourably considered, the embassy/high commission/consulate will collect the voting booths and locked voting boxes from the relevant office.” 

One exasperated diplomat said: “So now we expect SA voters to cast their votes in another country’s voting booths and boxes and put their votes in the care of that country to be locked up until it’s dispatched back to SA.”

Despite various written requests over the course of three weeks for answers from the IEC about the reasons for the instruction, none has been forthcoming.

The department of international relations & co-operation referred all election-related questions to the IEC as its missions are only facilitating voting on behalf of the IEC.

Voting at foreign missions is due to take place on May 18, while elections in SA happen on May 29.

The note also requests the assistance of the hosts to provide the necessary police and other security to ensure the missions are safe for voters. Those countries should also ensure that no protest marches or other security threats happen near the SA missions on the day of voting.

The IEC said earlier that South Africans living abroad would be able to cast their votes in the national ballots but not the provincial ones. They can cast their votes at 120 of SA’s missions abroad. The process has already been dragged to court by the DA on various aspects. The DA has won the battle to allow voting abroad to be done just with an ID card rather than a passport.

The DA’s court case to request more voting stations overseas is set to be heard at the Electoral Court on Monday. The Electoral Act allows South Africans abroad to cast their votes at any embassy, high commission or consulate. In larger countries such as the US and Australia, opening up honorary consulates for the purpose too would make the process easier for voters who otherwise need to travel or fly to different cities just to make their crosses.

In Australia, the SA high commission is in Canberra but many South Africans live in Perth. After the IEC rejected their request to open the honorary consulate in Perth as it was “not headed by transferred staff from SA” the DA approached the court for a decision. There are more than 2,600 eligible voters in Australia and more than 58,000 worldwide, most of them in the UK.

The IEC admitted before parliament’s home affairs committee during a recent briefing that the commission would struggle to deliver free and fair elections as the process was not fully funded. The commission was awaiting permission from the National Treasury to use its surplus savings of last year to cover the shortfall until August, when the Treasury might consider a further allocation during the medium-term expenditure framework.

The IEC received R2.3bn for the 2024/25 financial year, of which more than half (R1.29bn) will be used for electoral operations in the general election. Cost-cutting in government departments announced by the Treasury in January saw the IEC budget slashed by R607.2m, leaving the commission in the lurch on delivery.

Grant Masterson, an independent election specialist, said voting abroad came at huge cost to the IEC and voters who have to travel far to get to the available voting stations. The 19,500 eligible voters in the UK, for example, all have to vote at the high commission in London.

In the US, about 3,200 SA voters have to vote in Los Angeles, Washington or New York. According to Masterson, the IEC has not provided a breakdown of costs involved in voting abroad.

Gert Grobler, a seasoned former ambassador, said he found the request for assistance from host countries “strange”.

“In the past, when I was still a part of Dirco [department of international relations & co-operation], we would receive all materials from the IEC prior to the voting process. You need to maintain the integrity of the voting area and the ballots at all costs and without any possible interference from other countries’ authorities or officials.

The use of a note verbale to voice the request is an even stranger situation because a diplomatic note carries a specific official value as communication from government to government,” he said.`

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