SOUTH AFRICAN CATHOLIC BISHOPS' CONFERENCE
31st July 1998
Submission on the Electoral Bill [B 69 - 98]
We wish to comment on three aspects of the Bill, and on one aspect concerning the functioning of the Independent Electoral Commission.
1. The Single Voting Day (s14(1)(a))
One of the chief reasons for the excellent percentage poll in the 1994 election was the fact that three days were set aside for voting, one of which was designated for people who could not reach the voting stations themselves. While another three-day election may well not be practical from the point of view of expense and economic disruption, we must also be careful not to restrict unduly the ability of people to get to the polls. The IEC argues that there will be sufficient voting stations to handle the anticipated numbers and that no station will have to process more than 3 000 voters in urban areas and 1 500 in rural areas.
We urge the Committee to ensure that these estimates are accurate and verifiable, and that adequate contingency plans are in place to deal with any unforeseen eventualities in this regard.
2. Special Votes (s32)
The IEC has advanced cogent administrative, logistical and cost-related arguments as to why the provision of special votes for such categories as diplomatic staff, the elderly, the disabled, prisoners and others, would be difficult. We wish to make a few brief points:
· It should be noted that, at any given moment, a large percentage of those incarcerated in prisons are awaiting trial; they have thus not been found guilty of any crime, and cannot be said to be less deserving of special treatment than other potential voters.
· Many prisoners serve sentences simply because they are unable to pay fines. They should not be put at a disadvantage relative to other criminals who, having paid a fine, are physically free and able to vote.
· Apart from these considerations, it is by no means clear that a citizen should lose his or her practical right to vote simply because they have been imprisoned as a result of criminal activity.
· Various countries with voters' roll based elections, such as the United Kingdom, routinely allow their expatriate citizens to vote. There is, thus, in principle no reason why we should not be able to do the same.
· We agree with the IEC that a failure to provide people who, through no fault of their own, are unable to cast a vote at a voting station, might be grounds for a constitutional challenge.
Any measure or policy decision which limits the practical ability of citizens to cast their votes detracts from the overall legitimacy of the electoral process and from the credibility of the result. While this will always be an issue, it is all the more so in this, our second ever democratic election (and the first, some would say, to be held under conditions of normality). We believe that the negative consequences for our young democracy that would flow from an election that excluded some hundreds of thousands of voters would far outweigh the financial and logistical cost of adopting measures to include them.
We urge that the Committee requests the IEC to take reasonable steps to provide special votes for expatriates, prisoners and all those who, due to circumstances beyond their control will be an able to reach a voting station on voting day.
3. Identity Documents (s1(xii))
Recent media reports indicate that the IEC has retreated from its insistence that only identity documents bearing a bar-code will be acceptable for registration and voting. We welcome this development. There is widespread concern that the Department of Home Affairs lacks the capacity to ensure that all potential voters are equipped with such IDs in good time. A very large number of our citizens - especially those who are poor, illiterate, far from major centres, or who lack transport - would be effectively disenfranchised were bar-coded IDs to be required. We believe that adequate security measures exist to ensure that 'double-voting' is excluded even in the absence of the bar-code.
We recommend that the Committee amends s1 (xii) of the Bill so as to allow for the use of any valid South African identity document for purposes of registration and voting.
4. The IEC's Financial Position
The Chairperson of the IEC has drawn attention on numerous occasions to the fact that the Commission has not been granted sufficient funds to carry out its tasks adequately. In addition, it is clear that the provision of special votes will be impossible without further funds being made available. As we have mentioned., the importance of the forthcoming election for the consolidation of democracy in our country is beyond measure. While it is acknowledged that the state's financial resources are limited, and face numerous competing demands. it would be irresponsible to jeopardise the elections by allocating insufficient funding.
We therefore urge the Committee to do whatever it can to ensure that the IEC is provided with the necessary funds to meet its mandate.
Peter-John Pearson: Parliamentary Liaison Officer
Mike Pothier: Research Officer
SACBC Parliamentary Liaison Office