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02 May 2014

The power of the ballot box: public attitudes towards voter efficacy

Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)
Press Release

How does the public feel about voting, the value of their vote and do they believe their vote will make a difference? Results from the annual South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS) series, conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) since 2003, showed that most South Africans placed a high value on the right to vote. The survey consisted of a representative sample of 2 885 respondents aged 16 years and older living in private homes. 
Almost four-fifths of the adult public (79%) agreed with the statement that ‘it is the duty of all citizens to vote’. This robust belief in the duty of citizens to vote was perhaps unsurprising given that, prior to 1994, a majority of South Africans were denied the fundamental democratic right of being able to vote in free and fair elections.

Over the last decade, this sense of electoral responsibility has fluctuated within a fairly narrow range (between 77% and 86%). This is an encouraging finding that sets us apart from more mature democracies in Europe and North America, where there has been a diminishing sense of electoral duty in recent decades.

Yet a lingering question remains whether this deeply-held sense of citizen obligation is matched by an enduring confidence in the efficacy of voting, or whether there are signs of increasing disillusionment among the electorate about the influence of their vote on politics in the country.

The 2013 SASAS round revealed that close to half of all adult South Africans (46%) did not believe that  their vote would make a difference to electoral outcomes, while a similar share (45%) were positive about the power of their vote.

Looking at trends over the last decade (Figure 1), there were distinct upswings in in the belief of the efficacy of their vote in surveys conducted before and after national elections (i.e. between 2003 and 2004, and 2008 and 2009), but beliefs in the efficacy going into the 2014 national and provincial elections is significantly lower than in the lead-up to the 2004 and 2009 elections.

When it comes to the perception that elected officials, politicians and political institutions would respond to the demands and needs of voters, it follows a similar pattern as the above. In 2013, two-fifths (41%) of the adult population agreed with the statement, ‘after being elected, all parties are the same, so voting is pointless’.

A further expression of public scepticism towards politicians was the finding that approximately two-fifths (43%) agreed with the statement, ‘voting is meaningless because no politician can be trusted’. In the case of both indicators, the proportion critical of elected officials and politicians increased by approximately 10 percentage points relative to the pre-election survey rounds in 2003 and 2008.

Our evidence therefore showed a sizable minority believed voting had no discernible effect on electoral outcomes or the responsiveness of the elected to the electorate, and that this perspective had become more widespread among South Africans in recent years.

More sophisticated analysis further showed that political efficacy was a factor that had a significant effect on the intention to vote. Given its role in shaping electoral participation, the sense of political efficacy is an indicator that is likely to be of increasing importance in successive elections in the country.

Between two and three million 18-19-year-olds will be eligible to vote for the first time in the elections this year. Apart from patterns of voter registration among this cohort, there has been much speculation about whether the so-called ‘born free’ generation differs from other South Africans in its attitudes to democracy and politics.

From Figure 2 it is apparent that the youth of today were not found to be considerably different from older generations in the 2013 survey in terms of the perceived efficacy of their vote and sense of duty to vote. If anything, where age differences were evident, younger South Africans tended to be somewhat more positive in their viewpoints. It is also worth emphasising that the sense of duty to vote remained high among young South Africans, with 74% of 18-19-year-olds believing in this civic duty compared to 78% of those aged 50 years and older.

Note: Data were weighted to be nationally representative of the adult South African population.
Source: South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS) 2013

Figure 3 shows population group differences in civic attitudes. It is evident that in 2013 a significant share of the black African majority believed its vote did not make a difference, and was concerned about the responsiveness of elected representatives, indicating a level of political disillusionment.

By contrast, the sense of duty to vote was more common among the white minority. For instance, only a quarter (25%) of white South Africans thought their vote made no difference and less than a fifth (19%) supported the view that voting was pointless because all political parties were the same.

Coloured respondents exhibited the lowest sense that voters have the ability to effectively participate in and influence politics, while Indian respondents possessed the lowest belief that their voting will influence officials, politicians and political institutions. 

Note:  Data were weighted to be nationally representative of the adult South African population.
Source: South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS) 2013

Democracy in South Africa continues to change and evolve. It is heartening to note that the civic duty to vote is so embedded in the national consciousness. However, the findings of this review seem to indicate that the mass public is increasingly questioning the power of its vote to shape election outcomes and hold elected leaders to account.

In particular, it is the poor and disadvantaged who are more likely to question the efficacy of their vote, suggesting a sense of disillusionment among this socioeconomic subgroup towards electoral politics. As South African democracy continues to consolidate, there is a need to monitor and evaluate the trends outlined in this review, for rising disaffection among the voting age population has the potential to increasingly place downward pressure on conventional forms of political engagement such as voting. 

Note to editors / news editors

For interviews please contact
1)  Jarè Struwig
Coordinator: South African Social Attitudes Survey;
Senior Research Manager: Democracy, Governance and Service Delivery programme
Human Sciences Research Council
Tel: +27-12-302 2511 Cell: +27-82774 5749

2)   Benjamin Roberts
Coordinator: South African Social Attitudes Survey;
Research Specialist: Democracy, Governance and Service Delivery programme
Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)
Tel: +27-31-242 5606 Cell: +27-84523 0374