News & events


05 November 2021

HSRC election survey: Voters positive but turnout reflects political disillusionment

Andrea Teagle

The voting public is overwhelmingly confident that the 2021 local government elections were both free and fair, according to the Election Satisfaction Survey. Conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), the survey involved a random sample of 300 voting stations countrywide, with more than 12 000 voters interviewed across the country over the course of Election Day. This large-scale survey, therefore, captured a representative sample of the voting population, enabling us to understand and convey the voices of voters.

Of the sampled voters, 9 in 10 indicated that they trusted or strongly trusted the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) in general, while only 7% were neutral, 2% were distrustful, and 1% were uncertain. This is good news for the IEC’s management of the elections, said the HSRC’s Dr Benjamin Roberts, who was involved in the survey.

Although the IEC remains one of the most trusted institutions in the country, other HSRC survey research has highlighted declining trust in political institutions among the general population over the past two decades.

The views of the voters, as captured by the survey, need to be compared with the views of the non-voters, Roberts said. “There is where we find significant levels of discontent with democracy, general disillusionment with the political system in the country and core institutions [including the IEC] by extension.” These dynamics are especially important given the growing share of the voting-age population that are turning away from electoral participation.

Positive voting experiences

On 1 November, 12 million people turned out to vote at 23000 voting stations around the country. Those who made their mark made up 45.79% of the approximately 26.2 million South Africans who were registered to vote, which is approximately 30% of the voting age population of just over 40 million. This is the lowest turn-out since 1994.

However, among those who did vote, experiences were generally positive. The survey indicated that voting stations were accessible and waiting times generally short: 68% of voters reached their voting stations in less than 15 minutes, and 77% of voters waited less than 15 minutes in the queue before voting. Only 3% of voters travelled for over an hour to reach their voting stations, and only 7% reported having waited in a queue for more than 60 minutes, Roberts said.

Almost all sampled voters (96%) voiced general satisfaction with the quality of services that electoral staff provided, with 3% having expressed a neutral position and 1% dissatisfied. Public perception indicated that special needs were generally accounted for, with voters having reported satisfactory consideration of the elderly (91%), persons with disabilities (85%), the partially sighted and blind (76%), and pregnant women (77%).

More than 8 in 10 (84%) of voters were completely confident or very confident that their vote would be accurately counted, said Roberts. Reports of coercion were also uncommon: 2.5% reported that someone tried to force them to vote for a particular party or independent candidate outside a voting station; and 0.5% said this occurred inside a voting station.

Differences in provincial results were small, and voters in all provinces remained unequivocally supportive of the operational efficiency of the elections, said Roberts.

Declining trust in democracy 

The positive voter evaluations point to the continued integrity of elections in the country, Roberts said. However, the low voter turnout points to disillusionment with democracy beyond the credibility of the electoral process.

Planned abstention is not about operational issues, said Roberts, referring to findings of the Voter Participation Survey, a pre-election survey conducted by the HSRC on behalf of the IEC, in the months leading up to the election to gauge the political mood and electoral predispositions of the voting age public. “Just shy of 80% [of those surveyed] refer to aspects of disillusionment as the primary motivators for not wanting to turn in.”

“Some of our other research is pointing to a very disturbing decline in trust in democracy and public institutions supporting democracy in South Africa, as well as a decline in trust in political parties and politicians, said the HSRC’s Professor Narnia Bohler-Muller. “And, of course, democracy isn’t about voting only; it’s about public participation. This…could be one of the reasons why we had a relatively low turnout.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is another likely contributor to the low voter turnout. The vaccination rate among voters was 68%, according to the survey, a figure that is appreciably higher than the national vaccination rate, indicating that those who had not been vaccinated were less likely to turn out – possibly due to a fear of contracting or spreading the virus. HSRC research conducted jointly with the University of Johannesburg has also found a clear association between vaccine hesitancy and lack of trust in government. Thus, for some, political disillusionment might have driven both the decision not to get vaccinated and the decision not to vote. Surveying by the HSRC in June showed that the unvaccinated showed a lower intention to vote in the 2021 elections. Among voters, 92% were convinced that the IEC had done enough to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 at the voting stations.

In response to the suggestion that low voter turnout may have been a result of a long weekend, Roberts noted that having voting day occur on a weekend or holiday was a strong preference of the voting public (66%). It is, therefore, not clear whether this would have had a net positive or negative effect on turnout.

What about conditions on the day, such as the heavy rains experienced in the Cape? While this may have had some impact, it is likely to be relatively small: The Election Satisfaction Survey found that only a small proportion (4%) of voters decided on Election Day whether to vote. The majority (62%) decided whether to vote more than six months beforehand, a fifth (18%) decided between 1 and 6 months beforehand, and 15% decided during the previous month. Although those sitting on the fence might have been more swayed by conditions on the day, political disillusionment, including a diminished sense of the civic duty to vote and scepticism about the difference that one’s vote would make, is still likely to have been the main factor behind the low turnout.

Those that voted displayed a resolute conviction that they would turn out and cast their vote regardless, Roberts said.

The HSRC will release a detailed analysis of the weighted results in the next two weeks. 

Author: Andrea Teagle, a science writer in the HSRC’s Impact Centre

Researcher contacts: Prof Narnia Bohler-Muller, divisional executive, and Dr Benjamin Roberts, a strategic lead, in the HSRC’s Developmental, Capable and Ethical State research division

Links to articles and interviews on the HSRC election survey:

“Distrust of politicians the reason for low voter turnout, but voters saw elections as free and fair – HSRC”– Mail & Guardian

“LISTEN | Voters ‘overwhelmingly confident’ of free and fair election: HSRC survey”     – SowetanLIVE

“Trust in the IEC has dropped to 43%, for the courts it is now 35% – HSRC” – 702

“Voters have ‘overwhelming confidence’ in IEC, HSRC survey finds” –  BusinessLIVE

Andrea Teagle