Swaziland
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WILL WE SEE RECORD VOTER REGISTRATION TURNOUT?

The ongoing voter registration is, at the present moment, the only barometer by which to measure the success or otherwise of Eswatini’s much-anticipated 2023 general election.

In an election, the core part of the voting process takes place before the actual act of voting. That important element is none other than voter registration. Some argue that the requirement of registering to vote before being able to cast a ballot has always been integral to how democracy functions and provides both barriers and opportunities to voter participation. And based on this, the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) should be forgiven if they were to start gloating. Figures, they say, don’t lie. Over 80 per cent of eligible voters have already registered to vote in this year’s election.

What is the significance of this? There are those who posit, without any iota of evidence, that the last-minute rush to register on the initial registration deadline of June 14, 2023 was a result of either coercion or cash incentives. But let us look at the facts, had the deadline not been extended to this coming Sunday, the total number of registered voters would have stood at 526 075, which is 80 per cent of the 650 000 eligible voters. This figure was achieved within an atmosphere of intimidation on the part of certain political formations that have been calling for a boycott of the general election, which includes the voter registration. Before the registration commenced, there was concern whether people would feel free to come and register. It is known that there is the #Asiyi campaign, which has been encouraging emaSwati to engage in the election boycott.

Threats

There were even threats made against the EBC officials – that they would be attacked in the communities where they would pitch up the registration machinery. The threats, combined with the low turnout witnessed during the civic and voter educations exercises, gave the suggestion that the #Asiyi campaign would be a success. That, though, turned out not to be the case. Achieving an 80 per cent voter registration turnout under a hostile environment is, by any standards, a significant success. By the look of things, by the end of the extended registration deadline, the total number of registered voters will be the highest compared to the last two elections (2018 and 2013).

In the previous general election held in 2018, at the end of the registration period, a total of 547 426 voters were registered, which reflected 84 per cent of the eligible voter population. This also showed a considerable increase by 132 722 (14 per cent) registrants from the 414 704 (70 per cent) registrants in the 2013 National Election. Eswatini’s voter registration has been impressive to say the least. After the voter registration, the country will then wait to see how many of these voters turn up at the voting station during the primary and secondary election stages.

Again, the #Asiyi campaign proponents will be crossing their fingers, hoping for a low turnout. Voter turnout has always been a challenge and this applies to every country. In 2018, the voter turnout during primary elections was at 61 per cent (331 422 of the 547 426 registered voters showed up at the polling stations). In the Secondary elections, the 61 per cent was maintained as 330 422 voted. During the 2013 general election, there was a low turnout during the primaries as only 56 per cent (230 571 of the 414 704 registered voters) voted. There was an increase during the secondaries as 61 per cent (251 278) voted.

Turnout

Studies of voter turnout find that those countries with more facilitative registration laws have higher turnout rates. Eliminating registration barriers altogether is estimated to raise voter participation rates by up to 10 per cent. Based on such studies, one could be left with the conclusion that Eswatini’s electoral laws are voter friendly. But are they? The Kingdom of Lesotho went to the polls on October 7, 2020, or at least some of its voters did. Turnout was at an all-time low of 38 per cent of registered voters.

Many of the voters expressed discontent with politics in Lesotho by refusing to participate. Those who did come out were in an anti-incumbent mood. This turnout was almost 10 percentage points below the 47 per cent who voted in the 2017 elections. In South Africa, by 2021 there were 26.2 million registered voters, however, 42.6 million people were eligible to do so, with over 40 per cent of them choosing not to. The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) said just 12.2 million people voted in the 2021 local government elections.

This was an unprecedented low voter turnout since the advent of democracy in South Africa (SA). With just 30 per cent of the votes having been counted, the IEC had already painted a grim picture of the voter turnout. The commission said that this could be blamed on a number of factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic at that time. The voter turnout in the South African municipal elections had slumped drastically, potentially meaning reduced support for the ruling African National Congress.

In the United States (US), only 64 per cent of the US voting-age population was registered to vote in 2021, according to an article by Kathleen Malloy published in The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights - a coalition charged by its diverse membership of more than 230 national organisations to promote and protect the civil and human rights of all persons in the United States.

Substantial

Malloy said in comparison, more than 90 per cent of the voting-age population in the United Kingdom, Canada, Sweden and Slovakia are registered. She said this gap is substantial, but it does not have to be. This low registration is despite the presence of thousands of local volunteers and voting rights groups across the country mobilising at community centres, public libraries, college campuses, and more to register eligible voters. On its face, voter registration should be a simple process; however, the United States’ low voter registration rates compared to other democracies prove otherwise. The reasons for this, Malloy said, compared to other developed nations, was that registering to vote in the US could be an inaccessible process that prevents many eligible voters, particularly black, brown, native and rural voters, from casting their ballot.

“In most democracies, national governments bear for registering citizens to vote, whether through automatic voter registration or aggressive outreach efforts. The US, however, places the onus for registering on individual voters who must navigate an often complex system of state and local election laws,” she wrote. Before the 2020 election, Malloy said she coordinated voter registration efforts on her college campus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and organising these efforts highlighted the pitfalls of the voter registration system in the United States. She said some students who stopped by the registration tables did not realise they had to re-register after changing addresses, even if they just moved from one apartment to another in the same building.

Others did not realise they could vote in Madison if they were from other parts of the state or country. Many students were reportedly also confused about what paperwork they needed to register or did not have the right paperwork with them. “When we told students they could register on Election Day in Wisconsin, many were unaware that this was an option. Even though Wisconsin has same-day registration, which allows citizens to register and vote on the same day, students need to know what paperwork and identification to bring with them to the polls to register — and many did not,” Malloy said.

Monitoring

Being in the media and monitoring the ongoing registration process, one has noted that yes there are impediments but not at scale of the US as highlighted by Malloy. In Eswatini, some voters were not aware that they can register at a registration centre located in a certain constituency but indicate that you will be voting in another constituency. The most impediment noted in the registration had to do with voters not having Personal Identifications Numbers (PINs), which is the basic requirement for one to be registered. All in all though, it would appear that the election laws are conducive for registration. We now wait to see the final numbers after Sunday’s extended deadline.