News / Opinion / Columns

Martin Williams
3 minute read
7 Nov 2018
9:01 am

In elections, what counts is the people’s voice, not clever pollsters

Martin Williams

Election fever 2019 is bound to heat up today when the IEC announces a deadline for voters to register.

A woman stands outside her family's home near an African National Congress election campaign poster in Bekkersdal near Johannesburg, South Africa, 06 May 2014. The township has been the scene of violent service delivery protests. Picture: EPA/KIM LUDBROOK

This week’s US elections might not produce the results expected by the media, even if the historical trend is for an incumbent president’s party to suffer mid-term setbacks.

As we saw in the November 2016 US presidential elections, pollsters have been wrong about Donald Trump. Just as they did with Britain’s Brexit vote, pundits misread the mood.

In the ensuing years, commentators on both sides of the Atlantic have grappled with the dissonance between their views and the realities of voters’ choices.

Daily, Trump offends the sensibilities of liberals, rendering some illiberal. His crassness seems to challenge democratic ideals.

The palpable disdain shown when the voice of the people is not to the media’s liking brings to mind the origins of the expression vox populi, vox dei, “the voice of the people is the voice of God”. In modern democracies, the voice of the people is almost deified.

But Alcuin of York, the 8th-century English scholar who coined the phrase, was not a fan of popular taste.

In fact, he wrote, “Those people who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God should not be listened to, since the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness.”

Very close to madness? Isn’t that how we portray populists such as Trump, and our local varieties? Nearer to home, what do pollsters say about the people’s choice?

Afrobarometer predicts that in South Africa’s 2019 elections, the ANC will get 48%, while the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) will each get 11%. Historically, Afrobarometer has underestimated the DA’s performance by 10% or more.

Analyst Dawie Scholtz tracked Afrobarometer’s DA projections over the last four elections: 2006 – polled 6%, actual 17%; 2009 – polled 6%, actual 17%; 2011 – polled 13%, actual 24%; 2016 – polled 17%, actual 27%. Scholtz lists other flaws.

Notably, Afrobarometer didn’t restrict interviews to registered voters. This is significant. Why “count the votes” of people who cannot vote? Afrobarometer recorded 28% “undecideds/ don’t knows” yet made no attempt to allocate them.

Perhaps most significantly, the Afrobarometer survey “just bears no resemblance to by-election outcomes at all”. Consider Afrobarometer’s suggestion that the EFF will get 11% in 2019.

Earlier this year, Gareth van Onselen of the SA Institute of Race Relations examined the EFF’s vote in 37 by-elections in 2018 (since Jacob Zuma’s presidency).

The amalgamated figure of 6.1% suggests the hype around expropriation without compensation has not helped the red berets, despite their status as media darlings.

Since then, the EFF may have lost political ground because of the VBS Mutual Bank scandal. A cousin of commander-in-chief Julius Malema and a brother of Malema’s deputy Floyd Shivambu have both been implicated.

Having popularised the anti-corruption chant, “pay back the money”, the EFF should be hoist by its own petard.

Election fever 2019 heats up further today when the IEC announces a deadline for voters to register.

You can be sure polls and pundits will again misinterpret the voice of the people.

Martin Williams, DA councillor.









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