Scrap e-voting from the electoral bill – IRR
11 November 2020
More than 12 300 written submissions were sent in last week to Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Home Affairs to protest against the government’s plans to introduce an electronic voting system without adequate reason, costing, or public consultation. Yesterday, the committee responded to this public pressure by inviting the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) to respond to the many objections raised.
The IRR was the first to sound a warning against the mooted introduction of electronic voting. Its objections brought about a crucial week-long extension to the limited (less than 30-day) period the committee had initially allowed for public comment on the Electoral Laws Amendment Bill of 2020.
The IRR’s warnings generated an enormous public response – as reflected in the 12 330 submissions sent in within the space of that one week. As a result, the committee has been forced to call a halt to what would otherwise have been the headlong progress of the Bill.
The main purpose of the Bill is to empower the IEC to introduce an electronic voting system. Under the Bill, the commission can achieve this simply by stipulating ‘a different voting method’ for future elections at all three tiers of government. The IEC’s decision will be made by regulation and without reference to Parliament – and will override all existing legislation to the contrary.
The laws which stand to be trumped in this way currently provide for a manual and paper-based voting system. This system incorporates a host of vital safeguards against the manipulation of votes and the betrayal of the electorate’s will.
As the IRR wrote in its submission on the Bill, ‘traditional manual voting system are not entirely immune from irregularities. However, international experience confirms that the safeguards they provide are far stronger than those available under electronic systems. In particular, traditional voting systems are far more transparent because they provide a paper trail and can be observed at every stage’.
By contrast, electronic voting systems, no matter how ostensibly secure, have proved themselves vulnerable to overt penetrations by actors wanting to discredit an election; to covert penetrations aimed at intimidating voters; and to surreptitious penetrations that can be used to secretly change an election result even as the poll’s legitimacy is proclaimed.
These last two risks are particularly worrying in South Africa, where the ANC is well aware how badly its electoral support has already slipped – last year it won its 57.5% majority in the National Assembly with the support of only 26.5% of all eligible voters – and how easily it could be voted out of power in 2024 and beyond.
To avoid any public outcry, the ANC has tried to conceal this key change to the voting system within a forest of technical adjustments in the Bill. Had it not been for the alarm sounded by the IRR – and the swift response of so many concerned individuals and organisations – the ruling party would probably have succeeded in pushing the Bill through. Most people would then have learned about the IEC’s new powers only when it was too late to object.
This risk has at least been averted. But South Africans should have no illusions about the dangers to democracy in this Bill. If it is enacted in its current form, it will make it very much easier for the will of the electorate to be subverted by a ruling party seemingly determined to hang on to power by fair means or foul.
The IEC has now been invited to explain to the committee why no socio-economic assessment was conducted, despite the enormously high costs of electronic voting systems; why the present need for the finance minister’s concurrence for any IEC regulation affecting state expenditure is to be stripped away; and why the current manual voting system, with its effective safeguards and much lower costs, needs to be replaced at all.
But the committee, which is chaired by Bongani Bongo MP (ANC), seems also to have prejudged the issues. Its recent press release on the Bill claims that the country ‘cannot hide from the e-voting eventuality in the context of the Fourth Industrial Revolution’. This claim is self-evidently false.
The committee also says that ‘adequate mechanisms must be put in place to protect the integrity of any future e-voting process’. In practice, however, this cannot – and will not – be achieved.
Even a system that seems foolproof at the start of its life will not remain so as technology advances – and electronic voting systems cost so much they generally have to be retained for 20 years or more. In addition, the ANC will have every reason to avoid the best possible system and opt instead for one that has already proved its vulnerability to fraud in Venezuela or elsewhere.
Says Hermann Pretorius, Deputy Head of Policy Research for the IRR: “The truth of the well-known saying, ‘the price of freedom is eternal vigilance’ has again been shown. There is no doubt but that the IRR – and the many others who rallied to the cause – have helped to safeguard our democracy by securing proper scrutiny of the Bill.
“But the battle is far from over. The crucial need is to scrap all provisions in the Bill seeking to introduce an electronic voting system in place of the existing manual one, which functions well. If this amendment is not made, there is a real risk that future elections will be neither free nor fair. This will make it far more difficult for South Africans to vote out a ruling party in which they may have lost all confidence.”
Issued by Hermann Pretorius, IRR Deputy Head of Policy Research, 11 November 2020