Electoral democracy and voter education: New subject introduced to LEAD curriculum

April 1st, 2015

By Jeanne-Mari Retief

In May 2014 the Law Society of South Africa (LSSA) successfully launched its first election observer mission, deploying approximately 490 attorneys across South Africa to observe elections at their local voting stations.

On drafting its final observer report to the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), the LSSA realised that only an approximate 5,6 million voters between the ages of 20 and 29 registered to vote (‘IEC Registration Statistics as at 10 March 2015’ www.elections.org.za, accessed 10-3-2015) for the 2014 national elections, even though there were an estimated 9,8 million eligible voters in this age group (‘Mid-year population estimates’ Statistics South Africa 31 July 2014 at 9 available at http://beta2.statssa.gov.za, accessed 10-3-2015). Therefore, only 57,5% of eligible voters between the ages of 20 and 29 registered to vote (whether they actually voted is another matter entirely, and therefore the number of young voters between the ages of 20 and 29 that actually voted may be even less than the estimated 5,6 million that registered to vote). Except for the 18 to 19 age group, this age group had the lowest rate of registration in relation to the amount of eligible voters.

This made it clear to the LSSA that there is a marked lack of interest and voter education for voters between 20 and 29. This age group represents the youth entering the workforce for the first time; attending higher education institutions; and occupying junior positions with the intent of furthering their professional careers.

Therefore, they have a significant interest in the social, democratic and economic development of South Africa. Not only are their votes crucial to our society founded on the principles of democracy and the respect for the rule of law, but their interest in the process is also of paramount importance.

In order to promote interest and participation in the voting process the LSSA would like to place more emphasis on voter education for this specific age demographic. Therefore, the LSSA and Legal Education and Development (LEAD) endeavoured to form a partnership with the IEC to support this initiative. The target demographic is young legal professionals between the ages of 20 and 29.

It is against this backdrop that the LSSA and LEAD, in proud partnership with the IEC, launches an education initiative aimed at young law graduates. This partnership is cemented on the premise that these individuals, as future legal professionals or young legal professionals, will be tasked with upholding the democracy and respecting the rule of law. Through provision of voter education to this target demographic these voters will be enabled to spread information and knowledge to others.

The IEC trained all LEAD School Directors during an intensive train-the-trainers workshop on 10 and 11 February 2015. New material for this subject was drafted by LEAD, in partnership with the IEC, and the new compulsory subject to the LEAD curriculum: Electoral democracy and voter education, will be implemented at LEAD School across South Africa from March 2015. This will be a permanent addition to the LEAD learning activities and will continue to run in the lead up to the 2016 local government elections and the 2019 national elections.

There are currently nine residential Schools for Legal Practice across South Africa and one distance school run in association with Unisa. Therefore, there is significant national reach in this particular target demographic as LEAD and the LSSA are the primary providers of practical legal education and continued legal development in the legal profession. The current reach is an estimated 4 900 candidates within the specific target demographic and these numbers are increasing annually. Approximately 5 000 attorneys also attend LEAD seminars each year and a voter education course can later be added to the seminar department as well.

The goal is to reach as many young legal professionals through a respected primary legal education provider. This will promote a young legal society with proper knowledge of one of the core human rights on which a democracy is built: The right to vote.

Once the ground-work is done and the initiative has been properly implemented LEAD, in partnership with the IEC, aims to focus on expanding this project.

In order to ensure quality education the new LEAD subject will currently only be provided by school directors and properly qualified legal practitioners with extensive practical experience who have been properly trained in electoral democracy and voter education. This will ensure consistent quality education and the consistent transfer of valuable knowledge.

LEAD believes that the voter education initiative can be of great value especially in providing quality assistance to the IEC in regard to voter education. Furthermore, it will promote respect for the rule of law and our democracy while providing a clear understanding of the IEC’s role as a Chapter 9 institution.

LEAD is proud to state that it has formed a solid working partnership with the IEC that will be beneficial to young voters in South Africa.

Jeanne-Mari Retief is a facilitator at Legal Education and Development (LEAD) Jeanne-mari@lssa.org.za

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2015 (April) DR 15.

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