Picture: THE SUNDAY TIMES/ALAISTER RUSSELL
Picture: THE SUNDAY TIMES/ALAISTER RUSSELL

Wear a mask and, should you wish, carry your own pen. Accept hand sanitiser at voting stations. Strict social distancing rules apply – so don’t be too alarmed by long queues of voters. And the indelible ink used by electoral officials will now be applied to a voter’s thumb using disposable cotton buds.

That is how the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) will run its voting stations on Wednesday, when it will hold by-elections for the first time since March.

The commission has to catch up with a programme that was abandoned when Covid-19 hit, which means that by-elections will be held in 45 wards across 55 municipalities countrywide.

These elections, in which over 600,000 people are registered to participate, will be the biggest test for the IEC’s state of readiness as it prepares to manage next year’s local government election. Even though news emerged yesterday of a potentially effective Covid-19 vaccine, next year’s election is likely to be the first to be held under Covid-19 restrictions.

But IEC CEO Sy Mamabolo is well aware of the challenges – and his organisation is ready for it, he says.

Voter turnout

Falling ill with Covid-19 shouldn’t be a reason not to vote. In fact, one of the biggest risks to elections held during the pandemic is the low turnout that fear may cause. And as it is voter turnout has since the 1980s been trending lower in most established democracies owing to disillusionment and apathy.

Happily, this wasn’t in evidence during the presidential election in the US last week. Covid may have been a big issue on voters’ minds, but it didn’t deter them from voting. In all, more than 65% of Americans participated in the election process. It could turn out to be the highest turnout since 1900 — and that year was before women were legally allowed to vote.

The candidates — the eventual winner, Joe Biden, and the incumbent, Donald Trump — received the most and second-most votes in US history. The Guardian is tracking posted ballots, which broke records this year.

A number of other countries increased voter turnout during this pandemic. In Burundi turnout rose 14 percentage points, as 88% of eligible voters participated; in Poland turnout climbed 13 percentage points, to 68% of voters; and South Korea’s turnout rose 8 percentage points to 66%.

By contrast, there was a lower turnout in some places. The largest drop was in the Dominican Republic (down 14 percentage points) and North Macedonia. Both had high numbers of coronavirus cases just before their elections.

Some countries just don’t want to risk it. More than 60, in fact, have delayed elections this year.

Those that went ahead reported that the risk of transmission in polling stations decreased if officials enforced social distancing, required masks, increased ventilation and sanitised surfaces. Others resorted to more costly measures: increasing the number of voting stations, extending voting hours or allowing postal votes.

In SA, while the IEC says it’s ready, the fact is that by-elections tend to attract fewer voters. This is why the prognosis for Wednesday’s by-elections isn’t great, especially in areas like the Eastern Cape where Covid-19 cases are rising.

Budget cuts hit elections

If there’s one thing Covid-19 has done, it’s to force countries to think about alternative ways of running elections.

For example, could electronic voting ever become a reality in SA?

Not yet, it seems – even if it would make voting a quicker and safer option during the pandemic. Which doesn’t mean the IEC isn’t trying. It had hoped to pilot an e-voting project in certain wards, though a funding squeeze seems to have doomed this prospect. Mamabolo says the commission’s budget was slashed this year. It plans to take its plea for more support to the National Treasury.

It might as well: if it can’t argue successfully for more election funding during this pandemic, the odds of it succeeding any other time would be thin.

* Munshi is News & Fox editor of the FM​

This is a roundup of the best Covid-19 news from the web, brought to you in today’s FM lockdown newsletter.

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