The most common of refrains and the biggest of fears in the run-up to the South African 2019 elections has been fear about what many have called split votes: Votes given to smaller parties, leading to them being wasted because the smaller party doesn’t win a seat and instead takes away votes from the Official Opposition.
So big has this fear become that the Democratic Alliance (DA) has been sending out automated SMSs to voters:
Many have understandably called this SMS campaign obnoxious. Nobody likes spam. And mass-targeted messaging like this is classifiable as spam. The response here to the SMS has also indicated a very bovine disagreement with the sentiments of the campaign.
Not only is this campaign annoying, it is also intellectually dishonest, and shows the DA’s ever-growing shift into a party that doesn’t deserve any support by liberals or even constitutional democrats.
Even before the campaign, however, many South Africans who have expressed disillusionment with the DA have shown a frustrated fear that voting for anybody else will be a waste. Many who would rightly want to vote for the Capitalist Party, for instance, are afraid their votes will be wasted.
But it is never a waste to vote for a party that truly represents you, especially seeing that in our political system, it isn’t waste at all.
This article will be addressing this fear-mongering and its associated myth. I will be focusing on the more ideological and qualitative side of the myth, as Mpiyakhe Dhlamini has already addressed the mathematical side of it.
Why the confusion?
Why all this confusion about vote wasting? I suspect the problem comes from a gross misunderstanding of our electoral system.
Too many people believe that votes only benefit winners in South Africa. This is true in countries that subscribe to the first-past-the-post system. There the winner – 50.01% of the vote in a given constituency – gets all, and everyone else, regardless of how many votes they get, gets nothing.
That’s how it works in the United States and Britain. Under that system, vote wasting is a thing. One must tactically vote to ensure that the least bad candidate is victorious.
South Africa, however, does not subscribe to the first-past-the-post system. We have a proportional representation system (PR for short). In PR, everyone in the country or province votes for the parties on the ballot. The proportion of votes that a party receives then determines how many seats they will occupy in Parliament and the provincial legislature respectively.
So, if a parliament has 10 seats, and there are 100 voters, every 10 votes will translate to a single seat.
Seats are taken up by parliamentarians appointed by their party. You can find the list of candidates for all parties if you look hard enough. For every seat they get, a candidate of theirs enters Parliament.
Once in Parliament, however, the role of the party is supposed to stop. Every candidate is theoretically allowed to vote how they wish, and many candidates across party lines will be on the same side when it comes to voting on legislation.
In South Africa, our biggest fight at the moment concerns private property rights and expropriation without compensation (EWC). There are parties that staunchly defend private property rights, parties that are firmly anti-it, and parties so opportunistic that they will do what it takes to win votes, even if it means throwing away essential principles.
In the actual passing of legislation, smaller parties in Parliament still vote. It isn’t the DA versus the ANC and EFF. It is everyone voting ‘Yes’ versus everyone voting ‘No’.
This means that as long as you vote for a party that is against EWC, you are not wasting your vote. You are contributing to the proportion of non-EWC parties in Parliament.
The value of PR
South Africans have been getting PR wrong all along. Constitutionally we’re not really meant to have major parties, taking chunks out of the electoral proportion. A PR system is meant to have many smaller parties, all forming coalitions on shared values and vying to represent their constituents.
Confusion over our electoral system, fear-mongering and a cult-like treatment of our major parties has ensured that we are emphasising the bad aspects of our electoral system and wasting the good ones.
PR is meant to encourage diverse political views, radical solutions and diplomatic compromise between different coalitions. In countries like Israel that also use a PR system, their governments are formed from a multitude of parties (around 8-9). This leads to more diverse opinions in government, and a need for compromise and diplomacy among parties.
Our PR system is broken, simply because voters are too fanatical or too ignorant to vote for smaller parties. We, as voters, have artificially created a two-dominant-parties system and thereby undermined the beneficial PR system.
Democratic Alliance arrogance
DA officials, for the most part, know how the PR system works. They know that a vote for a smaller party isn’t a wasted vote. What they mean by ‘wasted vote’, in fact, is that they think they are the only party worth a vote – not that your vote will literally be wasted.
They don’t care about democracy, as they lie-by-implication about our political system. They also don’t care about liberalism, as has been made clear in their policy and behaviour over recent years.
Rather, the DA only cares about power. It epitomises the worst that political parties have to offer: Votes for the sake of votes.
The DA claims to represent the only path away from ANC or EFF victory, but have already gone into local coalitions with the EFF and have stated that they would be willing to go into a coalition with the ANC.
If your goal as a voter is to avoid ANC or EFF presence in Parliament, then voting for the DA isn’t the path to that. Rather, it may be detrimental, as the DA comes more and more to reflect ANC policy and often entertains friendship with the EFF.
Rather, vote for a party that actually reflects your views. We live in a system that allows votes for smaller and more radical parties. Use your democratic privilege and vote for principle. If we don’t, then soon enough all our major parties will be spouting the same thing.