Alternative proposals for electing constituency representatives in a mixed system
10 March 2021
There are now three proposals on the table for a mixed member proportional (MMP) electoral system for consideration by the National Assembly’s Home Affairs Portfolio Committee. The first is from the Congress of the People, the second from the Inclusive Society Institute and the third from ourselves. The government has yet to show its hand. At the National Assembly’s Home Affairs Portfolio Committee meeting on 9 February 2021, the Minister said that policy would go to Cabinet for final approval, possibly in mid-March. After that, it will be presented in Parliament. Political parties other than COPE are then likely to respond.
For now, we make the point that advocacy of an MMP system does not, in itself, settle all the details which will needed to be considered in the process of electoral reform. As an illustration, there are differences between the three tabled proposals about how constituency, as opposed to party list, MPs are to be elected. This brief sets them out and discusses the issues involved.
THE COPE PROPOSAL
The COPE proposal amends Section 38(6)(b) of the Electoral Act to read:
mark the ballot card in a way that indicates the party candidate or independent candidate the voter wishes to vote for;
Their presentation indicates that each constituency candidate will be allocated a number, and that number will be written on to the ballot card by the voter, or entered on a voting machine. The candidates and their numbers will appear on posters on the walls of the ballot booths.
This implies a single vote for a candidate, even though there will be multi-member constituencies, with parties potentially fielding more than one candidate in a given constituency.
THE INCLUSIVE SOCIETY INSTITUTE’S PROPOSAL
The ISI’s proposal is:
For the national election, there will be one ballot paper in each multi-member constituency (MMC), comprising only the names of the parties (not the parties’ individual candidates), followed by the names of the independent candidates. The voter will cast a single vote for either the party or the independent candidate of his/her preference and seats will be allocated proportionally based on the number of votes received for each party or independent candidate.
Party candidates are allocated in order of their appearance on the closed list for the party in the particular MMC. For example, should a party receive enough votes for two candidates to qualify, the two candidates at the top of the party’s MMC list will qualify.
This means that voters will be presented with the choice between independents, if any, and closed party constituency lists.
THE HSF’S OPTIONS
The HSF’s proposal identifies three options:
The first is to require voters to vote for one candidate only. The second is to vote for at least one candidate and at most the number of candidates in the constituency, using approval voting (i.e all choices have the same status). The third is to vote for at least one candidate and at most the number of candidates in the constituency, using ranked voting and a multiple transferable vote system to select candidates.
The COPE proposal chooses the first option. The ISI proposal sidesteps the choice by the use of closed party lists by constituency.
The second option identified by the HSF would allow voters to concentrate or disperse their constituency vote. In order to for each voter’s choice to have an equal weight. For each constituency vote, the weight assigned to each candidate would be one divided by the number of votes cast. Thus one voter might want to select just one candidate (an independent candidate), while another might want to select all the candidates of a particular party, say five in a five member constituency. The first voter would cast a single vote, with weight one. The second would cast five votes, each with a weight of 0.2, totaling to one. The number of votes cast would be limited to the number of constituency candidates in each constituency. No party would be allowed to nominate more candidates than seats, and it is likely that, on average, parties will field fewer candidates than seats.
Implementation of the second option would require a strategic decision by parties about how many constituency candidates to field in each constituency, based on an estimate of party support in the constituency. Field too few candidates and you miss an opportunity for getting another candidate elected. Field too many and you dilute the votes per candidate, prejudicing their ability to get the required number to be elected.
Any party strategic misjudgments at the constituency level would be compensated for in the selection of party list candidates. The HSF advocates two votes: the first for one or more individuals, and the second for a party. The composition of parliament by party (i.e. apart from independents) would be determined solely by the party vote.
The third option identified by the HSF also gives voters equal weight, but in a less predictable fashion, and at the cost of greater complexity for voters who would have to rank their choices instead of making yes/no approval decisions. On the other hand, it removes the need for strategic decisions about the fielding of candidates.
Of the possibilities, we like the ISI’s proposal the least. The point of a constituency system is to get away from party closed lists as far as possible in favour of putting choices about constituency representatives fully in the hands of voters.
The difficulty with the COPE proposal/HSF Option One is that it requires voters, in casting their individual ballots, to make a choice between candidates of a party they support, when they may prefer to lend their support to the entire party slate. Option Two gives greater freedom of choice.
Finally, we note that the use of voting machines could make the process of voting easier, and they could also rule out the possibility of accidently spoilt votes. If Brazil can manage them, so can we.
Charles Simkins, Head of Research, Helen Suzman Foundation.
 The COPE presentation to the Home Affairs Portfolio Committee can be found at https://pmg.org.za/committee-meeting/32156/ At the same site, there is a summary of the proposal by the Research Committee. COPE’s Bill can be found at https://pmg.org.za/bill/990/
 The Inclusive Society Institute’s proposal can be found at: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1EeTtWcxS4rONnXK2WufHTfArsaoDwkyR/view
 Our proposal can be found at https://hsf.org.za/publications/special-publications/national-assembly-electoral-reform.pdf