Decision to vote or not is a right that must be respected by all

To vote or not to vote? That is a question playing in some voters’ minds.

The Big Debate hosted by Redi Tlhabi engaged this question on Sunday. And having participated in the discussion, I think it is prudent to consider the different sides of the debate.

In the SA context, voting can be a very emotive issue. This is mainly because universal suffrage, where the entire adult population who are citizens of the country are eligible to vote, was only realised in 1994.

Before that, this was a privilege conferred upon certain racial and economic groups. By modern standards, SA was very late to the party on this one.

It has taken centuries of struggle for groups other than whites and males to be recognised as fully fledged citizens and many have lost their lives fighting for this.

And so some argue that all eligible voters are morally bound to vote in elections by virtue of this history.

The other strong argument is that not voting does not prevent the formation of a government.

These arguments resonate with those who hold the view that voting is a civic responsibility that does not hinge on the quality of the electoral choices on offer – political parties and their party lists. In fact, if all eligible citizens voted – meaning a higher turnout – the government and the decisions it makes could be considered more legitimate.

Moreover, it would be an endorsement of the entire democratic system.

These are good arguments indeed. There is, however, another side to this debate.

They can, based on considerations including the absence of a political party that appeals to a voter or seems to have a handle on how to solve the country’s problems, determine that not voting is the best choice among available options including voting and spoiling the ballot. Part of having the freedom of choice in a democracy is making the choice to stay away.

Staying away is in no way a negation of the reality that a government will be formed. It is merely exercising one’s freedom and not feeling compelled to support a party to demonstrate faith in the democratic system.

Of course, opting out does give a greater advantage to those parties already popular among voters while disadvantaging smaller parties or new entrants onto the political scene. Voter turnout can indeed be the deciding factor, particularly in highly contested elections.

If the concern is to ensure greater voter turnout, then the argument may lean towards compulsory voting.

In some jurisdictions the idea of voting as a civic duty has led to voting being made compulsory. Australia, Belgium and Argentina are cases in point.

The burden is placed on all citizens to participate in elections regardless of any reservations they might have. As noble as the idea may sound, it is actually inconsistent with the underpinning value of our constitutional democracy: freedom.

Regardless of how strongly one side may feel about the duty of citizens to vote, until and unless voting is made compulsory, the freedom to choose not to vote must be accepted and respected.

Nompumelelo is a thought leader with a solid track record in policy and political analysis. She is featured regularly in online and print media, as well as on radio and television. With years of experience as a communicator and researcher, she has authored and contributed to books, papers and articles. She writes a weekly column that has been running since 2014 for the Sowetan, South Africa’s second biggest daily newspaper, providing analysis on sociopolitical developments that have implications for democratic consolidation and deepening and governance in the country. Nompumelelo has a background in academia and has been a part-time lecturer at the University of Pretoria’s Department of Political Science since 2016 where she is currently pursuing her PhD under a Mellon Foundation Scholarship. Her research focus is analysing the effects of social media on political agency and implications for democratic consolidation and deepening which uses social media use among Fees Must Fall activists as a case study. She holds a BSocsci in Industrial Sociology and Labour Studies, BA (Honours) in Political Science as well as a MPhil in Multidisciplinary Human Rights from the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria where she wrote a minidissertation on the constitutional reform process in Kenya with a particular focus on the appointment of judges and the implications of judicial reform for democratic consolidation.

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