Spoilt ballots and election tactics

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The campaign launched by former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils emphasises the often forgotten phenomenon of spoilt ballots.

The prevalence in South Africa of spoilt votes is generally very low.

In the general election of 2004 it was 1.58% of the total national vote. In 200 it declined to 1.34%.

In the 2011 local government elections the spoilt element in the proportional representation and ward elections was 1.73% while in the District Council elections it was 2.44%.

It appears as if there is a correlation between the voter turn-out and spoilt ballots: the higher the turn-out, the lower the spoilt element.
The international practice follows a similar pattern. Australia has a system of compulsory voting and in the 2010 parliamentary election 6% of the ballots were spoilt.

In the French elections in 2012 an interesting pattern emerged. In the first round of the presidential election the spoilt vote was 1.92% but in the run-off round between the two main candidates it increased to 5.82%. In the first round of their parliamentary elections it was 1.60% and in the second round 3.88%.

The pattern is that when voters’ options are reduced more ballots are spoilt presumably as a substitute for their absent candidate.
The spoilt ballots in the South African national election of 2009 were 239 237 in total. That constituted the fifth highest total after the ANC, DA, COPE and the IFP.

It is equal to five seats in the National Assembly and more votes than those of the Independent Democrats, UDM, FF+ or the ACDP. It is noteworthy that the highest number of spoilt ballots was cast in the North West, followed by the Northern Cape and the Free State.

The lowest number was in Gauteng and the Western Cape – ironically the provinces with the highest incidence of local (service delivery) demonstrations.

In the case of the ANC the latest call by Kasrils creates a third option for ANC supporters after voting again for the ANC or voting for an opposition party. Instead of abstaining it creates an option for those who don’t want to support any opposition. It is presented as a protest vote but it will only be significant once it reaches a level of 5% or more.

The spoilt option will have the same effect as a lower voter turn-out by ANC supporters. Its effect was seen in the 2011 local elections when the DA’s supporter turn-out was significantly higher than the ANC’s and the result was that the ANC’s support declined to 63.65% and the DA’s increased to 21.97%.

The difference between a spoilt ballot and abstaining is that the former is in most instances a form of protest while abstaining can be either protest or simply voter apathy – but they will have the same effect on the ANC’s results.

– By ANALYSIS: Dirk Kotzé, Department of Political Sciences, Unisa