What You Need to Know About Electoral Systems

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It’s two weeks  until the local government elections. At this stage, all political parties and independent candidates have stated their cases to voters through political manifestos and campaigns. On 3 August 2016 all registered South Africans will have the opportunity to cast their vote and elect their desired  political leaders. During this time it is important for South Africans to learn political party manifestos as these are what the set political party promises its voters. The election promises are also what South Africans can refer to when seeking accountability from their elected leaders should they not keep to what was promised.

Understanding the electoral system used in the country will answer questions around why South Africans do not directly elect their president while other countries do. Electoral systems differ as much as democratic systems e.g. parliamentary versus presidential systems. An electoral system a set of rules which must be followed for a vote to be considered valid, and how votes are counted and aggregated to yield a final result. This note will briefly discuss the different types of electoral systems (as cited from content by the Mandela Institute for Development Studies and the Helen Suzman Foundation).

First-past-the-post

In a first-past-the-post system voters directly elect their own representatives in single-member constituencies and is used in the election of a president. Geographic divisions/boundaries may be manipulated to benefit ruling parties. The advantages of this system is that the electorate identifies with their representative. It also disposes strong accountability mechanism of elected representatives to the electorate.

Proportional Representation

At the core of proportional representation (PR) is the idea that it secures the representation of various societal groups that would otherwise be excluded in a plurality/majority system. Parties win seats in proportion to their share of the votes which can either be through closed or open lists. The advantages of a PR system is that it presents voters with clear and simple electoral choices. A PR system also promotes inclusiveness of societal interests, hence important in promoting conflict management. There is no need to hold by-elections and there is no need to draw boundaries in cases of a national constituency.

Mixed member/parallel system

The mixed member/parallel system combines the benefits of both plurality and PR systems. A given number of seats in parliament represent geographical constituencies and an extra group of parliamentarian are chosen on the basis of proportional representation.

South Africa uses a PR system, allocating seats in direct proportion to the number of votes a party received. South Africans vote for parties and not individual candidates in national elections.Parties submit – to the Independent Electoral Commission – nine provincial lists for the provincial legislatures; and, for the national legislature, nine provincial-to-national (or ‘regional’) lists and one national list (although a national list is not mandatory).

At the end of the electoral process, these (ranked) lists are used to fill the seats allocated to each party. The higher up on a list a party member is, the more likely that member is to get a seat. This answers questions around how one political party has more seats in parliament than the next.
Understanding the electoral system has the power to influence a voter’s choice in order to ensure that the desired leaders/parties are elected into office and also to ensure that strong oppositional party has substantial seats in parliament. The most amazing thing about being part of a democratic South Africa is having the power of choosing who gets to represent you nationally all the way to ward level. Every vote counts and South Africans should go to their voting stations in numbers because no vote cast is in vain.  

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