Who will be voting in this election? Not that many young people

It looks like South Africa’s 20-somethings have been less than enthusiastic about registering to vote in this year’s local government elections. Well, compared to 2016 anyway.

About a quarter of the eligible voters are in this age group, but less than half have registered. In 2016, 5.8-million 20-year-olds were registered, this year there’s 4.4-million – that’s a 23% drop.

The drop in the number of 18 and 19-year-olds who took the time to register was even steeper at 64%. Just over 180,000 registered, compared with 500,000 in 2016.

So, who has registered to vote and who is likely to vote? We dug into the IEC’s voter registration data to see what we could find. The results are in the graphic below.

Older people and women are more likely to vote in these elections

The IEC’s push for new voters

In 2016, the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) pushed new voters to register to vote in that year’s municipal elections (PDF). Its aim was to register 1-million new voters; it registered 1.3-million. Eighty percent of the people who registered for the first time were under 30 years old.

This year, despite spending significant resources on encouraging young people to register, new registrations were much lower.

Sy Mamabolo, the IEC’s CEO, said at a media briefing in September that 91% of new voter registrations for the elections in November, or 402,401 people, were aged 29 or younger.

The Covid-19 pandemic, which has dragged on for more than 18 months, may have had something to do with the relatively low new voter registrations, but how much of an effect it has had we probably won’t know for a while.

Apathy or something else?

It’s not because young people are apathetic about the voting process, noted Institute of Security Studies researcher Lauren Tracey-Temba in a 2016 study of what drives young people to vote. She found that if young people feel that political leaders don’t address things that directly affect them, such as youth unemployment, crime and corruption, they are less likely to participate in elections. 

Tracey-Temba spoke to 277 focus groups and conducted 49 one-on-one interviews with 18 to 24-year-olds in all nine provinces between February and July 2014.

“Young people still identify voting as important and as an effective way to bring about change. They do, however, come from a generation that is enticed by action, and not words,” she wrote.

It’s not just local government elections, young voters aren’t participating in national elections either.

The number of people under 30 registering to participate in the national elections has also dropped, according to a 2019 report on South Africa’s non-voters by Dr Collette Schulz-Herzenberg, a senior lecturer in Stellenbosch University’s Political Science Department

“A bulging youthful population has produced a significant proportion of young eligible voters. Despite their disproportionately larger numbers in the electorate, young people register (and vote) at far lower rates than their older counterparts,” wrote Schulz-Herzenberg. 

Her analysis showed that fewer young South Africans under 30-years-old registered to vote in the 2019 national elections (48.6%) compared with the 2014 elections (58%). 

Women vote, where are their voices?

This year, 55% of the registered voters are women – the same proportion as 2016.

“​​Women are more interested in political participation than men,” Youth Lab director Pearl Pillay told The Outlier. 

“In countries like the US, women vote far more than men do, but because we have framed democracy as a male activity, we see women’s political participation as the exception, rather than the norm,” she said.

The same holds true for South Africa. For example, in the 2016 municipal elections 58% of the women (PDF) who’d registered cast a vote, compared with only 42% of the men.

The biggest voting block by age category in this election is women in their thirties. Yet in the media, politics is a very male subject. An analysis of election coverage by Media Monitoring Africa (PDF) found that 78% of the voices speaking about the elections were male.

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