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Voter lethargy hits Malta too

EXPLAINER • How Malta will be voting its MEPs to Brussels

jurgen
Jurgen Balzan
25 May 2014, 7:06am
Last updated on 25 May 2014, 7:58am
Voter apathy for European elections is no longer an exclusive reality on the continent – indifference has now reached our shores too.

The significant number of uncollected voting documents shows that interest in European Parliament elections is on the wane in Malta too, with the number of uncollected votes in 2014 amounting to more than double the figure for the first election in 2004.

This could well reflect the pedestrian campaign presented by both parties, in which European issues hardly figured, making way for a mind-numbing rhetoric centered on national issues which have little or nothing to do with European politics.

The Electoral Commission has confirmed that 21,856 voting documents were not collected. The figure shows an increase of 5,994 uncollected documents when compared to the 2009 European elections and 11,722 when compared to the 2004 elections.

A total of 344,374 – including 7,880 EU citizens – were eligible to vote yesterday, with the number of uncollected documents amounting to 6.3% of the total eligible voters.

In European elections, Malta is considered as one electoral district, meaning that the voting process is long-winded. The official first count result is expected to be out between 1am and 2am on the night between Sunday and Monday. However, it is expected that by 3pm, the political parties will have clear projections in hand and by then it would be safe to announce which party has won a majority.

At a European level, turnout has been falling steadily since the first elections in 1979, indicating growing voter apathy.

The turnout has constantly fallen in every EU election since 1979. In 2009, the overall turnout was at 43%, down from 45.5% in 2004.

Despite the decline in interest, Malta remains one of very few countries with a high voter turnout. In 2009, Malta registered the third highest turnout, with 78.8% of the electorate turning up at the polling stations.

However, unlike Belgium and Luxembourg, who topped the tables with a 90% turnout, voting is not compulsory in Malta.

Apart from the two Benelux countries, voting is also compulsory in Greece in Cyprus. Differences in voting systems do not end there. The voting age varies from country to country, with voters in Austria being allowed to vote from the age of 16.

STV

No, it’s not a disease but the abbreviated name of the Maltese electoral system, the European elections have once again put under the spotlight.

Despite being widely acknowledged as fair, the system has a number of flaws, especially in regards to accessibility and the speed of the counting process.

The proportional representation by Single Transferable Vote (STV) is a complex system intended to give as full an expression of voter preferences as possible.

Alongside the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Ireland, Malta does not allow voters to cast their ballot electronically, by proxy, at an embassy or by post.

Maltese citizens who live abroad have no other choice but to travel to Malta if they are eligible and stir up enough interest.

Voters in Malta, Ireland and Northern Ireland, do not vote for a single political party, nor for one single candidate but they rank candidates in order of their first, second, third, etc. choice. Candidates are then elected once a quota is reached.

Although voters rank candidates in order of their preferences, voters have one vote and when the first preference fails, the vote gets transferred to the next choice.

The quota

Candidates are elected when the number of votes they have collected reaches a predetermined quota. This is established by dividing the number of votes cast by the number of available seats plus one.

In yesterday’s election, six seats were up for grabs, meaning that the quota was established by dividing the number of valid votes cast by seven. In percentage terms, the quota is thus 14.3% of valid votes cast.

Unlike general elections, where the number 1 preference determines the outcome of the election, European Parliament election results heavily depend on the distribution of preferences which determine which six candidates get elected. 

Transferability

If a candidate has exceeded the quota, they are elected and their votes are recounted in order to determine how the surplus of votes above the quota is to be redistributed according to subsequent preferences.

However, after distributing all votes of an elected candidate, a calculation is made to establish the proportion of the surplus to the quota, plus surplus votes cast in favour of the elected candidate.

If the surplus is one sixth, each of the other candidates will be credited with one-sixth of the second preference votes expressed in his or her favour.

The quota of votes of the elected candidates is then bundled up and passes out of the election process.

The election then passes to round two in which another candidate may reach the quota and be elected, in which case the process above is repeated.

If no candidate exceeds the quota, the candidate with fewest votes is eliminated, and his or her votes are redistributed according to the second preferences expressed by the voters.

In this case, there is no proportional assignment because all the votes of the eliminated candidate are redistributed.

This tedious and lengthy process works best when voters give all candidates a preference. However, when voters choose to limit their preferences to one party, as often is the case in Malta, the system favours the bigger parties.

In 2004, the Green Party candidate Arnold Cassola failed to get elected despite receiving the fourth highest number of votes.

Although Cassola got 22,938 first count votes, the AD candidate did not garner enough preferences from other candidates who were either elected or eliminated to reach the quota or at least remain the only standing candidate in the last count. 

Block voting

In theory, the system was created for voters to vote for all standing candidates and this is why a virtual seat is counted in establishing the quota.

Yet, the two main political parties encourage their supporters to vote for all their candidates in order to secure as many vote transfers as possible within their camp, but that is only half the story.

While parties actively encourage block voting to the prejudice of rival parties, they also face the menace of internal block voting.

In devising such systems, the parties have effectively warped the original design and few voters now imagine that they can and should vote for candidates in parties other than their own.

Party block voting remains deeply entrenched in voters’ psyche because of the years of propaganda encouraging it in a two party system.

This leads to a substantial number of votes being lost once they can no longer be transferred, hurting the chances of smaller parties and at times candidates within Labour or PN.

Secrecy

Contrary to popular perception (and the spirit of the Constitution) the vote is only relatively secret in Malta.

On the back of each ballot paper, the two main parties and the electoral commission place their rubberstamps, ostensibly to prevent election fraud by the insertion of counterfeit ballot papers.

However, the PN and Labour change their rubberstamps for every ballot box, allowing them to determine the trend of votes not only in every electoral district but also within a small number of streets.

In addition, the two big parties appoint street leaders to assess the situation door by door, enabling them to make a shrewd guess as to why there was a shift of a handful of votes between one election and another in a given number of streets.

To exacerbate the infamy of the supposedly secret system, a list of names of voters who did not collect their voting documents is published and the parties collect the list of names of those who did collect the voting document and did not vote.

In the run up to election day, a running tally is kept and voters who did not collect their documents are pestered to do so by party volunteers who make hundreds of phone calls on a daily basis.

Thanks to information collected on the ground by street leader voters who choose to turn up late to the polling booths are also pestered by phone because they have not yet voted.

Disillusioned voters who want to hide their disenchantment for fear of retribution often pretend to cast their vote but leave it blank or invalidate it by scribbling obscenities or other messages.

On the other hand, those who are thoroughly upset and are aware of the Big Brother scrutiny make it a point not to collect their voting document or not to vote, deliberately making sure that their names are seen by the party hacks who scan the lists of names.

What happens elsewhere?

Malta and Ireland are the only two countries out of the EU 28 where MEPs are elected through the Single Transferable Vote.
The majority of countries use a preferential voting system, while eight countries including the UK, Spain, France and Germany use a closed list system.

MEPs are elected according to national electoral systems, but these have to observe certain common provisions established by EU law such as proportional representation. As a general rule, voters can choose between political parties, individual candidates or both. While in some countries, voters can only vote for a list – without the possibility to change the order of candidates on the closed list – in other countries voters can express their preference for one or more of the candidates.

In most countries, the territory is considered as one constituency, with the only exceptions being Belgium, France, Ireland and the UK.
Germany, Italy and Poland are also divided in separate constituencies, however the election result id determined at national level.

The European Commission has asked that results not be released before 11pm tonight. If plans run to schedule, estimates on voter turnout across the EU will be released about two hours before.

jurgen
Jurgen Balzan joined MaltaToday in 2011, specialising in politics, foreig...