Fact-check on tactical voting; a must-read before Wednesday

CAPE TOWN — If ever there was an important “service” story to cut through the increasingly deafening rhetoric and nonsense that’s being spouted by political parties as next Wednesday’s defining ballot day marches closer, this is it. Unless you’re a student of politics or obsessive about studying every last constitutional and electoral detail and rule, this objective, factual summation of the situation around tactical voting is essential reading. It sums up the way our political system is set up and how that translates, whether you choose to vote for one of the plethora of minor parties, (so many new), the incumbent, or the main opposition party. The heated argument that making your cross opposite a minority party is wasting either your hard-won democratic right or your life-long privilege to vote has a bucket of cold water thrown over it. Take a breath, calm right down and read on – you might thank yourself. – Chris Bateman

Fact check: Is a vote for a small party a wasted vote?

By Philip Rosenthal*

A repeated theme of party campaigners in this election is whether a vote for a small party is a wasted vote. Out of self-interest the big parties would prefer you to think “Yes” and the small parties would like you to think “No”. Let’s break down the issues and fact-check the arguments for and against.

Before we start, this is a ‘debatable issue’ – based on understanding our South African electoral system. Emotions can get passionate at election time and the question of how to vote strategically is not an ethical absolute. This article is to help you understand our political system – not to advocate a particular party. The answer would be different in a different country.

*In a ‘Single Transferable Vote’ system, such as many universities use for their Student Representative Council, you vote for your first choice, then your second choice, then your third choice etc. A certain number of votes is needed to get elected and after this, surplus votes of a candidate are transferred to your next preference. This system is the most complicated, but has the least “wastage” of votes. Our elections don’t work like this.

*In a ‘Constituency system’ as South Africa had before 1994, and which America and Britain still have, people in a geographic area vote for a representative. Usually there are only two parties or maybe three who have a chance of winning in that geographical area. Usually polls and past elections will give a good idea of who has a chance. Let’s say for example, that the vote gets split three ways: Party A gets 40%; Party B and C each get 30%, then Party A wins that seat. But if party B and C actually have similar policies then they have lost by splitting the vote because together they have 60% of the vote. So a constituency system tends to favour just two big parties. It also favours parties choosing to contest in areas where they have a good chance – and to let another party win in others. In constituency systems, you sometimes get strong regional parties such as the Scottish National Party in Scotland or the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland. So in a Constituency system, a vote for a small party often is a “wasted vote”. In Britain, the new UKIP party got a big slice of the popular vote, but they didn’t win in any constituency parliamentary seats. Ironically, since the United Kingdom representation in the European Parliament is decided on a proportional basis, they were well represented there.

*But South Africa doesn’t work like that. It operates on a ‘Proportional representation‘ system like for example Israel or Germany, where seats are allocated according to the popular vote. This tends to favour various different sizes of parties – with no party forming an absolute majority, but a coalition formed after the election creating a majority.

But within our Proportional representation system, are there any ‘wasted votes’? Yes, but there is much less ‘wastage’ than in a Constituency system.

Tiny party wastage

If a party doesn’t have a chance of getting one seat, then that would be a ‘wasted vote’. To get one seat in parliament in South Africa you need 0.25% of the vote. Practically, parties which got 30,000 votes or more got a seat and those who got less than that didn’t. In total 178,000 votes went to parties which were too small to get a seat. One could say those votes were ‘wasted’. Had those tiny parties instead merged with each other or larger parties, they could have together got about six seats in parliament. That means one could say about 1.5% of the 2014 election votes were ‘wasted’ on ‘tiny parties’. Those parties that splinter over minor disagreements into smaller factions, lose in this ‘wastage’. One can see from past elections and current opinion polls which parties have a chance of getting one or more seats.

Read also: Graham Sell: Good luck ending state capture with SA’s proportional system

But arguments to vote for ‘tiny parties’ despite them not electing a candidate can include, firstly, they have to start somewhere and maybe they will make more progress in the next election.  Secondly, they can have impact especially on single issues as a ‘protest vote’ where they feel the larger parties are letting them down – often influencing the larger parties to shift policies. UKIP for example had this effect in shifting Conservative and Labour policy on Brexit.

Split fraction wastage

If for example in our 2014 elections, 18 million people voted on a proportional representation system for 400 seats meaning, you needed about 45,000 votes per seat – some parties would get a bit more than this fraction and some just a bit under. So a party may have won for example 18.25 seats, but it only gets 18 seats. Another party may get 2.7 seats – and then this is adjusted up to 3 seats by formula calculation on whoever is closest to a full seat. Now this ‘fractional waste’ affects all parties who have more than the minimum of one seat.  Some win slightly to get a full seat from a fraction. Some lose the fraction. But the voter has no say over who should get their fractional ‘left over’ vote. So if two parties of similar policies were to unite before the elections, they could combine their fractions of say two half seats to make a full seat.  This is for example what “United Torah Judaism” has done in Israel where two similar small parties united to get that one extra seat that otherwise may have been lost to other parties. Nevertheless, the voter cannot remedy this ‘wastage’ problem by voting for a big party since the same fractional problem affects all parties.

PREMIUM: Change finally coming to SA’s Electoral Act – Dr Michael Louis

The Electoral Act, Section 6(c) explains how the ‘wasted fractions’ are re-allocated to make up whole seats “awards of seats still remaining un-awarded must be made in sequence to those parties having the highest average number of votes per seat already awarded”.  Small parties (at least one seat) are more likely to have a high average seat allocation, because they have fewer seats to divide by – and thus have their fraction remainder rounded up, while the tiny parties (less than one seat) will get no seats and big parties are more likely to lose their remainder fraction and be rounded down. So the smaller the party (but above minimum votes for one seat) is actually less likely to have split fraction wastage than a big party, but a tiny party (below minimum votes for one seat) is most likely to be wasted.

Floor crossing wastage

If after the election, a representative crosses the floor from a party which you supported to one you don’t then you may feel your vote was wasted. The merits of ‘floor crossing’ is debatable, but in South Africa, ‘floor crossing’ is no longer allowed, so this risk is gone.

Wastage by wrong coalition

After the election, if there is no party with an outright majority, the larger parties will attempt to form coalitions with the small parties to give them the majority they need to govern. This is what has happened in South African municipal elections for example in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth and Swellendam. The smaller party is often then in a strong position to bargain with the bigger party for concessions – for example on policy or appointments of leaders (such as deputy major).

Now in Israel, for example, the religious parties tend to be flexible and form alliance with whichever large party wins – the result is they form an almost permanent part of the government – and have disproportionate political influence. Using this, they have set up a massive and growing parallel private religious schooling system, which prepares future voters to support them further.

Read also: How about an All-Star Coalition to beat the ANC? – Chuck Stephens

In South Africa, smaller political parties have tended to declare before the elections who they are prepared to form coalitions with and who they will not. The ACDP says they will not form a coalition with the ruling ANC. The EFF says after this election, they will form a coalition with the ANC but not the Democratic Alliance. At the time of the previous municipal elections, the IFP said it wasn’t planning on going into coalitions but they haven’t declared their intentions for these national elections.

A large party may prefer to govern without a coalition, meaning they don’t have to make any concessions to a smaller party but if they get less than an absolute majority, it doesn’t mean they will lose that city, province or the national government to the opposite view.

Municipal elections constituency

In the municipal elections there is a mixed system in which some seats are constituency based and some are proportional representation. Thus there is some motivation to vote not just for a political party, but for a particular ward councillor who you believe will look after your local concerns. That however is not relevant to the national elections.

Mitigating factors boosting small parties

Despite the risk of ‘wasted votes’, other factors boost small parties:

Strong key issues

Small parties often have a strong policy platform on a specific issue, which larger parties don’t. They can introduce this to parliament in a Private Members Bill, which often the other parties will support.

  • For example the ACDP passed the Labour Amendment Bill allowing paternity leave for fathers;
  • COPE passed the Civil Union Amendment Bill, outlawing marriage officers conscientious objection to same sex marriage and is proposing another on health, which appears motivated to try to open the door to euthanasia.

Party policy constraints

Unlike the Constituency system, the proportional representation MP is appointed by their party who can also demote them. Unless the larger party is being generous, their MPs don’t have much freedom to vote with their conscience differently to party policy. Thus while a party member may hold to Christian convictions on abortion or the homosexual agenda, they risk their jobs if they vote or speak against the party.

Mobility between committees

Members of parliament (MP) in smaller parties often sit on multiple committees at the same time – going wherever they are most needed and leaving uncontroversial legislation. By moving around to where the action is, they exercise disproportionate influence – and often work much harder to keep informed on what is happening on many committees. Nevertheless, even with such mobility, a party with less than about six MPs won’t be able to cover all the committees they are interested in.

More voices on a committee

On each committee, one MP from each party acts as spokesperson and the others support them. There is generally thus only one opinion from each party expressed on each issue. More political parties represented on committee mean more opinions expressed. In our political history since 1994, the ruling party has always had a majority on each and every parliamentary committee. The result is that the opposition MPs have only two options to influence a committee. Firstly, they can persuade through reason to influence legislation. Secondly, they can walk out of a poorly attended committee meeting to cause it to fail on quorum and thus delay the process. They have never been able to defeat the ruling party in a committee vote, since the ruling party exercises tight discipline against dissenters. In my observation, ruling party committee members are more likely to be influenced by two or three other parties expressing objections than just one party.

Using opportunities

Each party has opportunity to raise public questions in parliament, objections or points of order and to speak on each particular debate. While time is allocated on party size, a small party can pitch its views into a few minutes. Hard working MPs can embarrass the ruling party by asking pointed questions. As an example, Helen Suzman as the lone Progressive Federal Party MP from 1961 to 1974 made 885 speeches and posed 2,262 questions. In 2007, the Minister of Health said of Cheryllyn Dudley “She never misses an opportunity to ask about the termination of pregnancy and euthanasia.”

More reliable on specific issues

Larger parties are often divided on particular issues – and what they say on a particular issue is influenced by who just happens to have been appointed to that particular committee – without even knowing what the opinion of that individual is. For example, a Moslem MP on an international relations committee may take a biased stance against Israel.

Media debate

In media debate, MPs of small parties are often invited to debate or be interviewed on issues where they are strong. Political party views tend to get more media attention than for example the views of Non-Profits. While bigger parties do dominate the media, pro-active smaller parties get more than their proportional share. The pro-active engagement of the then small Democratic Party after the 1994 elections led to their growth.


So, can votes be wasted in our system? ‘Yes’ votes can be wasted if a tiny party doesn’t get below the threshold of about 30,000 votes, which may be indicated from polls and past election results. Votes for a tiny party may waste seats but some may do so as a protest vote or in hope of growth for a future election. ‘Yes’ some votes are wasted on a fraction of less than half a seat, which could with a party merger have been combined to give a full seat – but this affects small and larger parties equally. Floor crossing is no longer allowed so this is not a risk. Our small political parties have mainly declared refusal to form alliance with the ruling party – so the ‘unite against the ruling party’ argument doesn’t hold unless they betray such election promises.

Small political parties that do win seats tend to exercise disproportionate influence to their size through – mobility between committees; through adding an independent voice on a committee; by proposing private members bills; by being vocal in the media; by having a strong stance on a particular issue; by entering alliances with larger parties in exchange for policy concessions.

Our proportional representation system in most countries tends to create a diversity of parties of differing sizes, as opposed to the constituency system which tends to favour two large parties. The question of whether to vote for a larger or smaller party is one where good people will disagree, but in South Africa there isn’t such a strong argument as in a constituency system.

  • Philip Rosenthal is the director of the public advocacy group, ChristianView Network.