Are you an expat? This bill aims to make your voting easier
MP seeks to allow Saffers overseas to vote close to where they live, but critic says it's just a pro-DA ploy
A senior DA MP has introduced a private member’s bill which, if agreed to by all parties, could make it much easier for thousands of South Africans living abroad to vote.
Mike Waters has gazetted a bill that seeks to change the Electoral Act to allow South Africans living overseas to vote close to where they live, rather than having to cast their votes at a South African embassy, high commission or consulate in their host country, as is the case now.
The bill also makes provision for the day that South Africans based overseas can cast their votes to fall on a weekend. It further proposes that provincial ballots be extended to expatriates instead of the current situation in which they are only allowed to cast national votes.
But an expert in electoral law believes these proposals are self-serving and not meant to advance electoral rights.
Waters told Times Select in a telephonic interview that the bill was in keeping with the democratic principle of ensuring as much access to voting for all eligible South African citizens as possible.He said they were not proposing that ballot papers be transported to every corner of all the countries in the world where South Africans reside. The idea was to identify those countries and cities where there is a high concentration of them and extend voting there, rather than just limiting it to diplomatic missions which are often located far from where expats live.
“If you live in Australia, the embassy is in Canberra; but no one lives in Canberra. South Africans live in Perth, Melbourne, Sydney. Some have to travel up to 3,000km to get to Canberra to vote.”
To his knowledge there were more than 30,000 South Africans living in Perth and a similar number living in Brisbane. Waters said it did not make sense to expect them to take a day off during the week and travel thousands of kilometres to Canberra to vote.
Figures from the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) show that 18,446 votes were cast in the 2014 general elections at 116 diplomatic missions worldwide.
Asked how the IEC would be able to determine where South Africans live, Walters said there were few countries with a high concentration of South Africans. These were Australia, the UK, Canada and the US. He said the government could use the data at its disposal to determine where South Africans are largely concentrated, and extend the voting there.
South Africans living abroad were only allowed to vote after the Constitutional Court handed down a landmark judgment in 2009 recognising this right. The Freedom Front Plus had brought the matter to court on behalf of a South African teacher working in the UK who wanted to be allowed to vote.
Waters said he had included the provision that expats be allowed to cast provincial ballots as well because this was the case for state employees based overseas before the landmark judgment.“Public officials working overseas had the right to a provincial vote, but somehow they stopped it after the court case,” he said.
Asked how this would work, he said expats could register their last known South African residential address and this could be used to determine which province they would be allocated on the provincial ballot.
Waters said he was hoping that when it’s tabled in parliament the parties deliberating the bill would view it solely as an attempt to advance democracy.
“It’s unconstitutional to disenfranchise people,” he said.
Analyst Ebrahim Fakir said while it was the state’s responsibility to carry the practical and resource burden of enabling people to exercise their right to vote, a logical balance has to be struck between this right and what is possible administratively.
For starters he believes it would be unwise to legislate for the extension of ballot boxes to all foreign cities where there is a high concentration of South Africans because those numbers might change in the future.“You can’t legislate because when that dynamic changes, what will you do? Will you change the law again? The best you can do is introduce something in the legislation giving the IEC administrative discretion to make it possible for a large number of South Africans to vote.”
Fakir said if foreign-based South Africans were so interested in the right to vote they would not be living abroad on a permanent basis.
“If they are so interested in citizenship, why are they living there?” he asked.
He slammed the bill, saying it was not about extending constitutional rights but advancing party interests.
“It’s not about exercising rights, it’s about bolstering their power. It’s about serving the DA electorate,” Fakir said.
In its response, the IEC said the bulk of the matters listed in the bill were already under consideration by the commission.