How Your Vote Counts
Jodi Allemeier
October 21, 2021

South African local elections are set for Monday 1 November 2021. You can check your voter registration details here.

South Africa’s local government election system is based on a proportional representation system that combines “first past the post” ward representative, making up half of council, with representatives of parties making up the other half. This is different to voting systems where people might directly elect a Mayor, for example, or “plurality” or “majoritarian” systems where a single “majority” winning party takes on leadership, sometimes through blocked or phased voting.

South Africa’s local government voting system is considered incredibly fair — where no sub-place vote counts more than another, and where due to the important value of votes in every area, parties are encouraged to be active in every area, and put forward strong candidates in every area. This is believed to promote democratic participation, as well as better representative outcomes (including gendered representation).(1)

However, as voters, it can still be confusing. Why are Mayoral candidates campaigning, when you don’t get to elect a Mayor? Why do some ward councillor candidates stand for election in several wards? And what do you mean my vote counts more than once?

We are data scientists and democracy geeks, so we tried to break this down for ourselves, and you!

1. How many ballots you receive and what they mean

The number of ballots you receive at the local government elections depends on what type of municipality you live in.

In South Africa, there are 3 types of municipalities. Local, District, and Metro.

In Metro municipalities, you will receive two ballots — one for your ward councillor, and one for the proportional representation list. These are described in more detail below.

If you live in a local municipality, you live in both a local and a district. You will receive three ballots — for your ward councillor, for your local council, and for your district council.

The rest of this article mostly focuses on the calculation for metro voters.

You can find out which type of municipality you live in here.

2. The two types of councillors

In Metropolitan Municipalities, Council is made up of two types of councillors. These are:

a) Ward Councillors

b) Proportional Representation Councillors (also known as PR Councillors).

Ward Councillors

Ward Councillors are elected by the residents living in the ward on a “winner takes all” basis. This means that the Councillor with the most votes wins the seat. Candidates don’t need to belong to a political party to run to be the Ward Councillor. This is why you will see “independent candidates” running in your ward, and why on your ward ballot, you vote for a person by their name, not their party.

Anybody can register and appear on the ballot as an Independent candidate.

However, due to the way in which Proportional Representation is counted, as we will see later, some candidates belonging to political parties will run in several wards — the purpose of this strategy is to gain votes for their party to gain more proportional representation seats in Council.

The role of a ward councillor is popularly believed to be someone who receives service delivery complaints and escalates these on behalf of residents. This is, however, technically incorrect. Ward Councillors are meant to:

  • represent your interests in the proceedings of council,
  • communicate with their community about the work of council, and
  • monitor the performance of the municipality with the best interests of their ward in mind.

They also have to run a ward committee, and get allocated a small ward budget, within a specific code of ethics and conduct.

Proportional Representation (PR) Councillors

PR Councillors are elected by voters who live in the municipality on a “proportional” basis. This means that the seats are allocated to political parties based on what segment of the total votes they received.

Only political parties can contest and win PR Councillor seats (not independent candidates). Parties submit lists to the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) prior to elections, and Council seats are allocated to party members based on this list and the number of votes that the party receives, using the calculation method explained below.

3. Are you voting for a person, party or policy?

In South Africa, we do not have votes for specific policies or laws on our ballots. Policies and budget votes are taken to council once council is sitting. You will have opportunities to comment when these go to public participation processes, but local government is “representative” — your elected representatives vote on policies and budgets on your behalf, so it is very important to know and understand the policy positions that they and/or their parties support.

Ward councillors are supposed to engage their wards before voting on issues in council in order to properly represent their wishes — has yours ever done this?

On the other hand, councillors who have won their seats via “proportional representation” represent their parties, and will typically vote according to alignment with party policies (or if you are more cynical, party interests). In theory, it is important to know not only the PR list of people who will make it to council if that party is successful, but also the policy positions of that party.

On voting day, how your vote counts gets a little complicated. Stick with us here while we try to explain.

When you place your vote on your ward councillor ballot, you are voting once, for a person. But, this vote also counts towards proportional representation if the person who you choose to vote for belongs to a registered political party. We describe this more a little further below.

When you place your vote on your proportional representation ballot, you vote for a political party.

Who elects the Mayor?

Municipal councils have some “special” positions, such as Mayors, Deputy Mayors, Mayoral Committee Members, and Speakers. None of these are elected by you. While we have an increasing trend of “Mayors” campaigning, you do not actually get to mark your vote next to a Mayor. You vote for the party who has declared someone as their Mayoral candidate, or often has indicated a likely candidate through who is their number 1 candidate on their PR list — but this is not guaranteed.

Mayors are elected by Council. If a party has a majority in Council, it is assumed that they will honour their campaign and elect their promised candidate (if they had one) into the Mayoral position. If there is no majority party, then we enter into “coalition agreements” and the Mayoral, and other strategic positions, are up for negotiation.

Once the Mayor is in place, other positions are appointed (such as members of the Mayoral Committee or “MayCo”) by the Mayor. These typically include MayCo members in charge of key portfolios such as Transport, Human Settlements, Social Services and so on. Different municipalities have slightly different structures and number of positions.

4. How the seats are calculated and what this means for a calculated vote

Ok, so you have: two ballot sheets.

One is for a person (ward councillor) That person might be a member of a party, or might be an independent. This vote determines who is your ward councillor, and is won by “winner takes all” or “first through the post”.

The other ballot is for a party, and goes towards proportional representation.

That means you have two votes, right?

Not quite… Once all ward councillors have a seat, making up 50% of council, PR seats are allocated — and ward ballots are used again.

Proportional representation is calculated as the total number of valid votes cast for each party being the sum of ward + PR votes /Quota

Yes, your ward vote counts more than once (not quite twice, because the sum is divided by this “quota”). But yes: your ward vote is used to determine your ward councillor, and if you vote for a councillor who also belongs to a party, that gets added to a party vote towards proportional representation, too (unless the candidate has won the ward, in which case the votes are not added to the PR calculation as that party has already won a full seat in council for those votes).

That is why some members of parties stand for ward councillor in several wards. They have no intention of winning or serving in those wards — they’re just collecting all those extra points running through the maze of lost voters (or voters wise to the game, and donating their ward vote to the PR tally of the party they believe will best represent them on policy issues).

Ok, so what is this “quota”? The Quota is the total valid votes cast for all parties, divided by the total number of seats available, minus the number of elected independent ward councillors plus 1. Ugh. Maths. It makes sense though — everyone who voted, splits the number of council seats. But we subtract all the independent ward councillors because they already have a seat and can’t have two bums on two seats as they are just one person; plus 1 — because there are always remainders.

It usually takes two rounds of allocation due to fiddly decimal issues. You can’t get 2,8 seats (e.g.) to a party. Therefore the 0,8 is used for the second phase of the allocation based on the number of seats left after each party has been allocated. The party with the highest remainder gets 1 seat each. This means that it’s possible for a party that did not get a seat in the first round to get a seat in the second round.

Some insights we learned about this calculation were that your vote always counts, and no person’s vote counts more than others.

And while we really believe in the importance of ward councillors, the “winner takes all” approach at ward level doesn’t mean all is lost if your preferred candidate doesn’t win your ward — if they belong to a party, your vote for them still counts towards that party’s PR tally. Even if they don’t win, you’re offering a booster-shot to PR values that might tip the scales towards a majority for your preferred party. So vote for the candidate and the party that you believe will really represent your interests in matters that come to full council, council sub-committees — regardless of what you think their chances are.

Having said that, you get two ballots for a reason. Voting for different parties at ward and PR level does make sense if you really believe the ward candidate is strong and will represent your ward’s interests, while the council vote represents your metro’ interests.

Find out who is running in your ward here:

Written by: Jodi Allemeier

Checkout more of Jodi’s blog posts here:

Artwork by Lerato Mosehle & Paul Figueira

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