Why today’s youth are less likely to vote

Many municipalities that held by-elections after the November 2021 local government elections face the embarrassment of coming bottom of the league for voter turnout, says the writer. Picture: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency (ANA)

Many municipalities that held by-elections after the November 2021 local government elections face the embarrassment of coming bottom of the league for voter turnout, says the writer. Picture: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Jul 4, 2023


Nkosikulule Nyembezi

The dust is settling on last Wednesday’s by-elections, and the announced results are making interesting headlines in the mainstream and social media platforms.

But one of the big stories doing the rounds in election observer networks highlighting last week’s experience is not the vote results. It is about the dwindling numbers of people participating in the voting process, even by by-election standards, which are usually significantly lower than in general elections.

Many municipalities that held by-elections after the November 2021 local government elections face the embarrassment of coming bottom of the league for voter turnout.

For example, last Wednesday’s by-elections affected 99,711 registered voters in Gauteng, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape. Five independent and 54 party candidates from 18 political parties contested these by-elections.

The outcome was 32 194 votes cast, of which 31 947 were valid, and 247 were spoiled.

There is consensus among various stakeholders that the number of spoiled votes is acceptably low by international standards and is a positive reflection of the hard work of, among others, organisations part of the Election Monitoring Network that provide voter education and conflict prevention programmes in local communities during and in between election cycles.

Yes, no one election is the same as the other, and that is why there is a lively debate on what we should learn about voter attitudes from these results.

In Gauteng, voter turnout ranged between 22.79% and 33.86%, while in Mpumalanga, it ranged between 27.46% and 37.06%.

In KwaZulu-Natal, voter turnout ranged from 25.91% to 61.75%, while in the Western Cape, it was 21.39%.

This picture is consistent with figures from other provinces.

Low levels of electoral participation are not an exclusive disease to constituencies in low-income areas - over the past decade, voter turnout has sometimes been as low as 18% in some affluent municipalities dominated by holiday homes whose owners spend most of their time in economic hub places like Gauteng – but these dips are increasingly marking out poor communities from other similarly demarcated municipalities with high levels of outflows of locally registered voters and influxes of people registered as voters elsewhere.

Often, candidates confront the dilemma of spending time and resources wooing people who are not eligible to vote where they are.

Even opinion surveys on candidate support have become mostly irrelevant as a tool for targeting voters because of a large out-of-place registered voting population in a given area, particularly in times of holding by-elections.

That is worrying enough in itself.

But what ought to make the problem a much wider concern is that today’s young voters (between 18 and 35 years) are on the cutting edge of disengagement.

What is more, the disproportionate propensity of today’s young voters to stay away from the polls, largely due to missing out on voter registration and on being far out on election day, threatens to feed a growing cycle of non-participation over future decades.

This fear may seem at odds with the slight upturn in young candidates contesting elections and occupying legislative positions in the last 10 years.

For many years, voters in South Africa had to use their bar-coded identity documents to register on the voters’ roll and vote where they were registered.

But the chronic high unemployment crisis and deepening poverty have resulted in constant migration of the voters, causing many to miss out on registration before the deadline and relocate several times in the months leading to voting day.

Floods, shack fires and other disasters also contribute to the widespread relocation.

Since the emergence of research data on voter trends of the young generation of voters born after the dawn of democracy in 1994, civil society election observers have been warning about the dangers of voter marginalisation exacerbated by high youth unemployment and deepening poverty that are beyond the control of the election management apparatus.

Even after the routine voter registration campaigns by the independent Electoral Commission, the body tasked with regulating our elections, a significant number of the voting population still finds itself displaced by the constant need to struggle for survival.

The risks posed by these factors to our democracy and the absence of any evidence that the government and business community are doing enough to support democracy education initiatives by civil society organisations – the type of initiatives that meaningfully engage citizens to register as voters and actively participate in elections – is a widespread problem across the country.

The Election Monitoring Network has assembled impressive evidence on changing factors influencing voter turnout trends in the period between June 2019 and June 2022 to suggest that things could get worse, not better, in future elections.

That prediction could materialise if various stakeholders do not cooperate in rolling out targeted and mitigating voter education programmes and other practical measures to eliminate obstacles to voter participation by also using technology to reach out to the millions of voters.

My extensive research experience in this field encourages me to view this evidence as particularly useful, not just a solution in search of a problem.

The network makes two main points. The first is this: once a voter, always more likely to be a voter, but once a non-voter, perhaps always more likely to be a non-voter. Today’s under 35s are spectacularly less likely to vote than their predecessors, given the constant mismatch between their pressing needs and the election promises in most manifestos.

The second point is this: among all-age cohorts, voting levels are always negatively affected by the legitimacy-deficiency of political parties and the rising intolerance depicted by their inflammatory campaigns and violent attacks against competitors.

The unacceptably high number of political attacks in various parts of the country fuelled by intra and inter-party conflict continue to discourage people from participating in elections.

Last Wednesday’s by-election results offer a chance to think again about innovative ideas and collaborate to improve voter turnout nationwide, which itself provides a more significant prospect for ensuring legitimate free and fair elections in South Africa than being discouraged by repeated failures by political parties to come up with solutions to the problem they routinely claim to be serious about fixing.

Nyembezi is a policy analyst, researcher and human rights activist

Cape Times