South Africa: Delimitation process and GIS

Updated October 2002

The Constitution stipulates that all elections in the country must be based on a national common voters' roll. In order to achieve this in practice the eligible voting electorate had to be located (or placed) geographically so that an individual's entry can appear only once on the Voters' Roll. The Electoral Act, 73 of 1998, therefore provides for the creation of voting districts where one voting district has one voting station and represents one segment of the National Voters' Roll. Voting districts were designed to be administrative and not political groupings.

Realising the impact of this on the electoral process, the Electoral Steering Committee initiated a process in February 1997 to create a continuous spatial database for the entire country in conjunction with the Department of Land Affairs and Statistics SA. In June 1997, the various project teams commenced the collection, creation, assimilation and quality-checking of the geographic data sets with respect to:

  • Topographical data (1:50 000 map series with road, rivers, contours etc.);
  • rural and urban cadastral data (e.g. erven, farm boundaries, streets), approximately 7 million land parcels; and
  • census enumerator areas, approximately 91 000 units.

In some rural areas global positioning systems (GPS) equipment had to be used to determine the geographical location of enumerator area boundaries. For example, an enumerator area boundary description would read something like "Start at Mr Khoza's house, follow the road to the spaza shop, turn left to where the red car had the crash and then west to the house with the number 54 painted on the green door." Obviously, these descriptions not only require some local knowledge or help from the local people, but also some ingenuity as the green door with the number 54 may have been repainted in the mean time!

The resulting data sets from the various project teams were combined and the different spatial entities (i.e. cadastre and enumerator area boundaries) aligned in a geographical information system (GIS). Final delivery to the IEC of the first continuous geographical data set for the country took place a year later in early June 1998.

While monitoring and coordinating the efforts of the project teams, the IEC at the same time developed an automated software application for the electronic and geographic delimitation of the country into a number of voting districts, using enumerator areas and their population statistics as building blocks. Voting districts had to be created in accordance with a number of pre-set rules, for example:

  • In urban areas, approximately 3 000 voting-age persons were grouped within a 7.5 km travel distance from a voting station.
  • In rural areas, approximately 1 200 voting-age persons were grouped within a 10 km travel distance from a voting station.
  • Delimitation was performed randomly and statistically, starting delimitation in turn from north, south, west and east.
  • Voting districts had to be as square as possible to ensure that a voting station in the centre of the voting district would be equally accessible to all voters.
  • Voting districts should not be cut by railways, major roads, rivers, etc.

The IEC project to determine the boundaries of voting districts commenced in early June 1998 by electronically grouping enumerator areas using the 1996 census voting-age population figures. Using the delimitation application, each of the 807 municipalities in South Africa was delimited into the appropriate number of voting districts and then checked by the operators on screen for any obvious errors such as horseshoe-shaped or oblong voting districts or major topographical features (e.g. rivers, highways, railway lines etc.) cutting through the voting districts.

Another custom-built software application was used to print municipalities on a series of large maps (A0 size) depicting in different colours the voting districts and also to a scale where the street name details are readable. Smaller municipalities needed only one map while others required at least 75 maps at A0 size to achieve the required level of detail. The IEC's quality assurance team performed significant in-house checking to ensure that the resulting hard-copy maps were accurately delimited, and comprised the best available relevant information.

We sailed into uncharted territory at the commencement of the project, not knowing the extent of the task and operating in a complex environment. We faced the challenges of working with nine very large spatial untested and untried databases (one per province), spatial data that had to be changed (primarily enumerator areas), a very new and still untested GIS package, and newly installed high-end IT infrastructure.

By early August 1998, approximately 4 500 A0 maps had been created and sent to 807 municipalities for 13 500 provisional voting districts and solutions or workaround procedures had been developed to deal with the many challenges. Approximately 100 GIS staff worked in shifts around the clock to complete the first phase of the delimitation process on time.

Parallel to the in-house technical delimitation process described above, local electoral officers (LEOs) had been identified in the municipalities and they were requested to convene party liaison committees representing all parties at a local level and to examine the maps depicting the voting districts. Suitable venues for a voting station were identified for each voting district and the maps were amended according to practical considerations such as mountain ranges or freeways cutting through voting districts and barring access to the voting station. Provision was made on the maps for the local electoral agent and the various parties to sign off on the maps before returning them to the IEC. In tracking the fieldwork process, a 10-person call centre was operationalised using sophisticated automatic call distribution (ACD) technology to distribute and manage both incoming and outgoing calls to LEOs. To support the integration of information gleaned from the LEOs, a colour-coded report was created to identify progress in the field relative to the stipulated IEC timetable. The first round of political party/stakeholder consultations lasted 61 days on average per LEO area of jurisdiction. Essential to the political process was the creation of a central unit to resolve disputes among political parties with reference to voting station identification, voting district boundaries and voting station locations. During the entire process, 11 disputes were lodged with the IEC. However, only six were eventually defined as disputes in official terms although these too were resolved within two weeks of being lodged. The remaining five were declared non-disputes and were largely due to LEOs' lack of understanding of the delimitation process.

A voting station identification team then marked and or verified voting station details on the maps and validated proposed amendments to the voting district boundaries. Amendments were endorsed or rejected through internal interrogation and, if the nature of the amendment was sufficiently contentious, reviewed by the Commission before the necessary changes were effected on the GIS. A set of revised and certified A0 maps was printed and dispatched to the municipalities as well as a smaller map (A3 size) for each of the 14 500 voting districts (after amendments). The A3-size voting district maps sometimes needed some inset maps to enhance readability, resulting in approximately 17 000 maps being printed, bulk copied (8 - 20 copies of each) and dispatched to the municipalities in time for the commencement of the first two weekends of voter registration (27 - 29 November and 4 - 6 December1998). Each of the voting district maps included a barcode with the voting district number which was scanned with the "zip-zip machines" during the registration periods.

Subsequent changes to voting stations and/or voting districts were incorporated and new maps printed before each of the last two registration weekends in January and March 1999. The new maps for each registration weekend were considered vital to the registration process with the dynamic and often volatile nature of South Africa's localised political environment often dictating changes to voting station locations.

Throughout the process, the IEC internal call centre handled queries and follow-up calls to the various municipalities. Inputs by the call centre enabled us to keep a finger on the pulse of the activities at the municipal level and to assist immediately when a problem arose. The call centre provided support to both LEOs and the public. During the registration weekends, 26 000 calls from the public were handled by the call centre. In supporting the LEOs, a further 20 000 calls were handled by the unit. At the same time, a national 0800 public information call centre operated independently providing South African citizens with "where to register" details. A GIS application was developed to assist help desk operators in pinpointing the exact location of a voting station for registration purposes by referencing the municipality name, suburb and cross-streets as supplied by the voter. Recognising low literacy levels (and other information access problems in South Africa), this facility assisted the voter in identifying the voting station within his/her voting district by merely making a toll-free call.

With respect to the IT infrastructure, the IEC has one of the largest and most complex GIS sites in the country. Nine A0 HP 2500 plotters were used (the largest HP plotter site in the world) as well as a number of Canon copiers for the A3 colour printing. High-end workstations (256 MB RAM, 233-400 MHz PII processors and 9GB hard disks), a high speed Ethernet network (100 MB per second) and powerful servers (512MB RAM, 4 X 200MHz Pentium pro processors and 270 GB hard disk) enabled us to handle approximately 200 gigabytes of geographical information linked to an SQL database containing information about the enumerator areas and voting districts. A record number of 46 million database transactions were carried out to the database in a 24-hour period just before the first registration weekend.

In total, the IEC has produced some 15 000 maps at A0 size and 1 : 200 000 maps at A3 size to assist with management of its election responsibilities over a 12-month period.

The GIS databases have been utilised for the creation of a multitude of spatial management reports that were required for election planning, logistics, registration, results, processes, etc. One of the post-election uses was to create an electoral atlas of the nation that includes demographic analyses of the Elections '99 results.

The geographical database as compiled for and during the delimitation process is also a national asset as it can be utilised by various state departments and private organisations for spatial planning. For example, the GIS can be used to spatially determine the best location for a clinic based on the proximity of young children and people over 60 years of age in a particular area.

The Delimitation and Planning Directorate will continue to make significant use of geographically based information systems to enhance management information and reporting for many organisation wide functions. The benefits of these systems can be exploited not only for internal election management activities, but also to assist the general public in determining where they must register and vote.

To these ends and as examples, GIS based intranet systems are now used by IEC operators in the field to advise of voting station changes, and the "Where and when should I register" application on this web-site provides external users with a map of their voting district.

The IEC was honoured with the prestigious 2000 Computerworld Smithsonian Award in the Government and non-profit organisations category for "innovative applications of information technology that benefit society". In making this award, special mention was made of the innovative use of GIS systems by the IEC.