On Kasrils, and spoiling your ballot

It’s perfectly reasonable to be dissatisfied with the electoral process. We might struggle to find a voter in any jurisdiction who can’t present a case for how things could be better, whether the improvement were to come from revisions to party funding legislation or the accountability of elected officials to those of us who elect them.

And, grumbling is what we do – all the more since the Internet and social media allowed for vastly increased numbers of people to join in the grumbling. But for all the grumbling, it’s perhaps worth thinking about – or revisiting – what the point of electoral systems in democracies is.

On the surface, of course the point is to show us what the will of the people is, and to allow for us to elect people to represent us in Parliament, or on city councils. (In South Africa, we don’t elect people but instead vote for parties, who choose the people – which is but another thing you could grumble about it you wish.)

But the dissatisfaction leads some to say we should simply opt out, either through not voting at all, or through measures such as spoiling your ballot. Recently, Ronnie Kasrils has been reported as recommending spoiling your ballot as a way to indicate that you believe our current ANC government has let us down (though, more nuanced accounts of his statements to the media indicate that he’s recommending a vote for a minority party first, and only spoiling your ballot if none of those parties are palatable to you).

To make one thing clear: spoiling your ballot is a legitimate choice in a democracy. But it’s the wrong choice, because it misunderstands the point of voting, in that it begins with fealty to a chosen party, where that fealty allows you to either endorse the way that they are doing things, or instead, to simply withhold your support from them.

The right choice is to understand your vote as purely a tactical gambit, deployed in the manner that might best achieve the outcome you hope to achieve. Signalling disappointment with a political party isn’t effectively signalled through spoiling a ballot, in that the signal is far too noisy – in brief, there is no way of telling whether you spoilt your ballot because you’re incompetent, or because you were protesting the electoral system rather than the party you ostensibly didn’t vote for.

A vote for an opposition party shifts the balance of power, however minutely. Voting for nobody, by contrast, indirectly rewards the incumbent through denying an opposition a chance to govern – especially when dealing with a significant majority such as the one the ANC enjoys in South Africa. A spoilt ballot might well decrease the majority party’s proportion of votes cast, but a vote for an opposition party will decrease it further, and alert them to the fact that they cannot take your vote for granted in a far more transparent way.

The tactical element of each person’s vote is of course a matter that can only be clarified by the individuals themselves. For a middle class liberal type like myself, living in the Western Cape, a vote for the ANC in the provincial ballot might play a part in alerting the governing party (the Democratic Alliance, or DA) that their steadily increasing social conservatism is diametrically opposed to liberal ideas.

It doesn’t necessarily matter that the ANC is illiberal – the vote signals that the party that is supposed to be liberal seems to instead be more focused on attracting votes through playing on fears of social decay than on defending its ideological turf. (It’s a separate issue whether the turf is the correct one, or whether the short-term gaining of votes is sensible strategy on their part – I’m simply addressing the voters’ choices and how they might be made.)

On a national level, a vote for the DA might well be the best signal of disaffection with the ANC – but then again, a vote for someone like the EFF might be more effective in the long run, because both the ANC and the DA are roughly centre to centre-right in economic terms, and the voice that’s missing in a poverty-stricken country like ours is the leftist one. Having a strong EFF presence in Parliament might be just what’s needed to shake the incumbent from their dogmatic slumbers, to paraphrase Hume.

And then, next election, you get to make the same choices again. The key thing to remember is that they are choices, and that you owe nobody your loyalty. If it’s the long-term future of the country that you care about, then you should vote in the manner that you think best supports a prosperous future for the country – not in a manner that best supports a prosperous future for any particular party.

  • Kevin Charleston

    Thanks Jacques. Not sure I entirely agree. Yes – there’s a lot of noise in the ‘spoilt’ ballots – but there’s no good reason to assume that the spoil is only a result of no longer voting for your previously preferred party. It could also be a signal that none of the parties deserves your vote – and you are hanging in for the goldilocks party.

    Any net gains or losses for a party are going to be hard to interpret anyway. Is an increased vote for the ANC in the WC a signal of disappointment in the DA, or approval that the ANC infighting has stopped? There is too much noise to pull out anything but simple trends.

    I’d like to see ‘a none of the above’ which would remove the true spoilage from the emphatic ‘no’. And, a political analysts’s wet-dream: an optional ‘who did you vote for last time’ – although that would probably confuse most voters and complicate the (still manual) count. Roll on electronic voting …

    • Agreed entirely on the ‘none of the above’ option, and of course, electronic voting.

    • Agreed entirely on the ‘none of the above’ option, and of course, electronic voting.

  • Michael Osborne

    Jacques, why vote at all in an election where your single ballot is so diluted that there is no meaningful chance that it will make any difference in the outcome?

    • Maybe I can say more about that in a future post, but for now and in brief, two reasons present themselves. One, because it takes a relatively small number of those diluted votes to make up a seat in Parliament – around 50k in the last election, if memory serves. Second, because a high voter turnout signals engagement in the part of voters, which is an element in discouraging complacency on the part of elected leaders. It tells them we still care, rather than that we’re apathetic.

    • Maybe I can say more about that in a future post, but for now and in brief, two reasons present themselves. One, because it takes a relatively small number of those diluted votes to make up a seat in Parliament – around 50k in the last election, if memory serves. Second, because a high voter turnout signals engagement in the part of voters, which is an element in discouraging complacency on the part of elected leaders. It tells them we still care, rather than that we’re apathetic.

      • Michael Osborne

        Jacques, a 1 in 50,000 chance of making a difference is statistically negligible. You probably have a greater chance of being injured or killed in a car accident on the way to register, or while driving to the polls. In Florida in 2000 the final margin in the Bush/Gore split was around 500. Even there, it was most unlikely any one person would swing it.

        • Yet, somehow, all those 1’s do end up making a difference. Rather odd.

          • Michael Osborne

            Jacques, yes, this is the voter’s paradox, a variant of the collective action problem. I want to “make a difference” to the chances of my favoured party, the EFF, winning. It would be more rational for me to expend the two hours, I would otherwise take registering and going to the polls, at work at work, and donate the time value of my money to the party. Even writing a few letters to the newspapers would be more likely to assist the EFF in winning a seat or two.

            • To be pedantic for a moment, common usage has it as the paradox of voting, with the voters paradox referring instead to the issues raised by Concordet. And in case there is ambiguity, my earlier reply was somewhat sarcastic – I am aware of the issue you raise, but continue to trust that people will, in general, continue to not act like Homo Economicus.

            • Michael Osborne

              Jacques, your pedanticism is noted and pardoned. But odd that the paradox has not arisen in the debate sparked by Kasrils. Or perhaps not so odd; Karsils himself would no doubt view it as a bourgeois parlour game.

  • Ami Kapilevich

    Well put. Most of my thoughts these days involve how to tactically divide my vote into separate provincial and national messages to the incumbents, so thanks for touching on that point.

  • Michael Osborne

    Jacques, I might agree that a “left” voice may be needed in Parliament. But I doubt the EFF is the party to provide it. It seems to me EFF is a far right, even a fascist, political organisation.