Wednesday, July 16, 2014

South Africa Votes mobile app keeps voters informed

While several other countries around the world have had the luxury of enjoying an open democracy for a number of generations already, the democracy in South Africa is still in its relative infancy. The fifth election in the nation was held on May 7 of this year and it was the first election held in South Africa since the death of Nelson Mandela. There is still much to be learned and the system still has a lot of room to grow, mature and improve.

As the concept of an open democracy with universal adult suffrage is still relatively new to the people of South Africa, seeing how apartheid only ended in 1994, the Mail & Guardian launched the SA Votes mobile app leading up to the May election. Although the app didn't have any direct impact on how the election was run or the technology that was used in creating and maintaining the voter list, recording and tabulating ballots, or so forth, it did help to add an important dose of technology and modernity into the South African system.

Made available both as an Android app and an iOS app, SA Votes strove to provide the people of South Africa and all interested people around the world with a “constantly updated source for quality news articles, opinion pieces, videos and slideshows about the election.” The content was curated by the Mail & Guardian and the app allowed users to easily access, comment and share the content from the app to their friends.

It is important to have a reliable and secure infrastructure in place for any general election and the elections in South Africa will continue to improve, but the first goal is to educate and inform the public. An informed electorate is better able to make educated decisions about who should get their vote, rather than basing their voting decisions on misinformation and propaganda. “We hope voters will use the app to arm themselves with the knowledge they need to vote responsibly,” said M&G Editor-in-Chief Chris Roper.

The 2014 general election in South Africa was notable for a number of reasons. It not only continues the young tradition of democracy in the country, but it is also the first election in which the “born-free” generation were able to cast their ballot. These are the young voters who were born after the 1994 general election when the apartheid era ended in South Africa. The number of total registered voters was encouraging; 80.5% of the 31.4 million eligible voters were registered ahead of the election, including 2.3 million new voters. An additional 26,000 international voters were also registered to cast their ballot from abroad, mostly from London, Dubai and Canberra.

While it can never be accurately determined how much of an impact the SA Votes app had on the outcome of the election, it does point toward the increasing use of technology in the country and perhaps the increased use of technology in the actual administration of future elections. The African National Congress (ANC) party won the National Assembly election with a majority vote of 62.1%, which is slightly lower than the 65.9% it achieved in the 2009 election. Opinion polls conducted by Ipsos Pulse of the People and Sunday Times leading up to the May election were in line with the final result.

People from more developed countries like Canada and France have come to take public information and public scrutiny for granted. It is assumed that the electorate can be reasonably educated and informed about the issues. In a younger democracy like South Africa, this may not have always been the case. The introduction of the SA Votes mobile app is one step toward having a more educated and informed electorate, one that will continue to be better able to make their voting decisions more wisely.