Playtime’s over for voters, candidates and the IEC
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CAPE TOWN - The infinite ticking of a clock can go from a soothing background noise to a terrifying reminder of your situation; especially if you are an unregistered voter, an unregistered candidate, or a hesitant election management body.
But the latter may be more helpful for all in our democracy as the October 27 election deadline draws closer.
Now that the Constitutional Court has dismissed the application for election postponement and opened another window for voter and candidate registration, everyone is urging people not to miss the voter registration deadline on September 19.
But why so much enthusiasm at the last minute when it has always been as important to aggressively register voters in a year in which millions of people have been forced to migrate by unemployment, poverty, and the coronavirus pandemic?
Deadlines, as much as we hate them, prove to be motivating for psychological reasons.
People like procrastinating, especially politicians loathing their responsibility to account for the wasted five years in office and wishing to prolong their privileges.
Or at least, they keep procrastinating despite their protestations. It’s common to see Facebook posts or tweets, or child-like submissions to the Moseneke Inquiry, where politicians reveal that they shouldn’t be on Facebook or Twitter because they have important elections to prepare for, but are procrastinating.
So politicians have been procrastinating by going online or to the Constitutional Court and pointing out they’re procrastinating. That’s advanced-level time-wasting there, especially if you are a politician that is both financially and politically bankrupt to contest elections. Look around to see if there are any election manifestos out there with credible promises to entice voters. I have seen none.
But, and most people will be familiar with this, once the time available to do the specific election-preparation tasks being avoided starts to run out, procrastination reduces. The most common distraction from the tasks is the occasional panicked glance at the clock, occasionally with an expletive-ridden rant that it can’t possibly be that late already to register to vote, to submit candidate lists, or to manage the elections.
But, elections will take place on October 27, even though the Electoral Commission has been courteous in its press conference to defer the announcement of the date to Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who will by law make the proclamation on September 20. And so we see the power of a deadline.
In the historical sense, a deadline refers to the boundary around a prison which, if prisoners crossed it, they’d be shot by the guards.
This definition isn’t applicable this time as electoral deadlines imposed by our democracy are designed to free us from any self-inflicted imprisonment.
Instead, the term is now used mostly to refer to “the time by which something must be completed”, such as the expired term of office for the current municipal councillors.
With this definition, deadlines are everywhere in the election timetable.
Our constitutional democracy assigns us many jobs and tasks that have to be completed in a certain time, racking up more deadlines (and even more on top if we’re the sort who’ll wander off too far under the pretence of the pandemic).
There is a cut-off date for voter registration, the certification and publication of the voters roll, voters roll inspection and verification, submission of candidate lists, lodging of various objections, the casting of votes, and ultimately the announcement of the election results.
The consequences of missing an election timetable deadline vary substantially, and people can respond to them very differently.
But the expected general pattern is that – as voters, candidates and the Electoral Commission approach these deadlines – they will become more motivated and work harder at the task in hand, and performance will even improve.
After all, psychologists constantly remind us that the human brain may like to procrastinate, but it likes to avoid unpleasant occurrences more, so it tends to adopt a “playtime’s over” approach when a deadline is imminent.
The meaningfulness of last week’s court decision to deny a postponement will be assessed by the extent to which it shakes the voters, the candidates, and the Electoral Commission into understanding playtime’s over!
But in defence of the disorganised and the overly cautious sponsors of the idea of postponing the elections, I can understand that they could have been undergoing some deep-seated psychological tendency to procrastinate, known as the planning fallacy.
This occurs because the human brain has a bizarrely optimistic slant when it comes to estimating how long things will take to do, and invariably underestimates.
Take, for example, the belief that, at the current rate of the Covid-19 vaccination programme, we can even hold election campaign rallies that for a long time will be categorised as super-spreader events.
The predicted surge of Covid-19 infections among the vaccinated and the unvaccinated this coming summer season will be an eye-opener for those in doubt about the compliance with the constitutional deadline for holding these elections.
Overall, election deadlines may be unpleasant and annoying to those who procrastinate, but when backed by effective institutions of democracy such as the courts and civil society, they do seem to make sure things get done. Not necessarily done well, but done regardless to the extent that we shall all work together to deliver free and fair elections in October.
And, as always in politics, this time that’s the best outcome we can hope for.
After all, all citizens make that undertaking to nurture this democracy in the Preamble to the Constitution when, to paraphrase: through our freely elected representatives, we adopt this Constitution as the supreme law of the Republic so as to lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law; improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person.
Nyembezi is a human rights activist and policy analyst