How did we all get it so… wrong?

Whose fault is that, really? The voters who no longer identify with their previous political party of choice? Or the party itself: which failed to live up to those voters’ expectations, and which failed utterly to come up with any convincing, appealing and incisive electoral strategies?

Election post-mortems are (or are supposed to be) a time for great political ‘mea culpas’. This one is certainly no exception; although, as usual, among the people who have most to answer for, there are still a few who seem to be expecting ‘mea culpas’ from everyone but themselves.

People like Edwin Vassallo, for instance, who claimed on live TV (I heard him myself; and no, I wasn’t drunk) that: ‘Those Nationalist voters who did not vote…”

Erm: I could almost stop there, really; because… well… if they ‘didn’t vote’, they’re not exactly ‘voters’, are they? And if they’re not voters… how on earth can they possibly be defined as ‘Nationalist voters’ to the bargain?

But hey, that’s Edwin Vassallo for you. Ever the conservative, he is now proudly conserving the centennial Nationalist tradition of simply assuming that ‘voters’, by definition, are the PN’s own, undisputed private property.

Meanwhile, here’s the rest of what he said: “Those Nationalist voters who did not vote, must now assume their share of responsibility for the PN’s defeat.”

And of course, he is entirely correct. ‘Voters’ who decided not to vote for the PN in this election, made clear by doing so that they did not want the PN to win. So they will no doubt be quite happy to ‘assume responsibility’ for the result… seeing as it’s the result they must have wanted anyway.

Whose fault is that, really? The voters who no longer identify with their previous political party of choice? Or the party itself: which failed to live up to those voters’ expectations, and which failed utterly to come up with any convincing, appealing and incisive electoral strategies?
If Edwin Vassallo still hasn’t worked it out, I’ll give him a hint. Some of those ‘Nationalist voters’ – you know, the ones who didn’t vote, and who clearly do not identify with the PN it is current form – have been busy sticking signs to PN clubs, with the words: ‘We deserve better’.

That, alone, should give the party a rough idea of who is really responsible for its most dismal election result ever.

But more of this another time. Another way in which this post-mortem differs from most is that it not just the losing parties and candidates who have emerged with egg on their faces. The media had quite a bit of that, too. (Heck, I myself had enough egg on my face to cook up an entire week’s supply of Spaghetti Carbonara… or I would, if I had enough guanciale to go with it).

Seriously, though. How the hell did we all manage to call the result, and get it so drastically wrong? Not just once or twice, but multiple times in the course of a single afternoon? And sometimes, with margins fluctuating by anywhere up to 10%...?

At around 9pm on Saturday, I myself called Norman Lowell’s result at 15,000… which then got upwardly revised to 18,000… only to eventually deflate down to the (official, this time) 8,000. Naturally, I consider this to be a serious cock-up on my part; and I therefore feel compelled to at least try and offer an explanation.

Having revisited the sequence of events in reverse, I may have a rough idea of what happened. From a media perspective, one must automatically distinguish between ‘provisional’ results, and the official result of the count itself.

The former tend to be projections by the parties themselves, which always deploy their own number-crunching statisticians in the counting hall.

This distinction is usually quite easy to make. Up until that evening announcement, I had used words like ‘unconfirmed’ or ‘provisional’ to describe Lowell’s early estimates – which were actually 18,000 at first (note: I had also heard anywhere up to 36,000, but I stuck with the more credible sources). But when it came to that 9pm post, I thought the 15,000 figure was the real McCoy. The actual number of first count votes cast for Norman Lowell, as released by the Electoral Commission.  

How did I make that mistake? I’m not trying to shift the blame here… well, maybe I am, slightly… but when, earlier in the afternoon, the Prime Minister publicly announced the result, complete with the 48,000 vote-deficit, I understood it as an official announcement of the results of the first count.

I waited for it to be confirmed on PBS (by which time the deficit had grown to 51,500… that, in itself, should really have been an eye-opener, but I’m sorry to say it wasn’t); and by then, I felt there was enough confirmation to assume that those were, in fact, the official results.

From that assumption, it followed that separate news reports citing ‘15,000 for Norman Lowell’ would also have been officially confirmed.
Needless to add, like most assumptions, it turned out to be completely wrong. The first count was still ongoing (indeed it carried on until the following morning), and the figures that I and so many others reported as ‘facts’ were actually still just party projections. And woefully inaccurate ones at that…

A lot could be said about how those projections (which are usually quite spot-on) were so far off-target this time round. I imagine it will have a lot to do with changes to the counting system itself. But it’s not something I can realistically speculate about myself.

The media’s failings are another matter. I can’t speak for others, but in my case, I screwed up because I did not make enough of an effort to verify those early projections. I did not distinguish between ‘provisional’ and ‘official’ results. In a nutshell, I did not check my sources properly.

OK, now I think I’ve flagellated myself enough. The rest of what I’ll say about this incident is not intended as an ‘excuse’… well, maybe it is… but this media failure also has to be weighed against the absence of any official source to actually get confirmed information from.

This takes us beyond the media perspective alone; as those misleading figures were being bandied about, I was asked – by more than person – whether there was any website where the count itself could be followed online. I am unaware that such a service exists. To be fair, it may not even be possible, given the complexity of our election system; but it is a lacuna that clearly needs to be somehow rectified.

It is not just the media, but the electorate itself that needs an official source of information at election time… even if just to have an independent reference-point to verify the media’s claims themselves.

This need becomes all that more apparent when applying last weekend’s events to other possible electoral scenarios. In any closely contested general election, a fluctuating margin of up to 10% can swing the entire election result. We could end up with a situation were a winner is declared - with, say, 55% of the vote – at 2pm… only for the official result to come out at 6pm, confirming that the ‘winning party’ had actually lost with only 45%.

I need hardly add that the consequences of that scenario would make the Fukushima nuclear disaster look like any old sewage leak in Balluta. There probably wouldn’t even be anything left of the entire island at all, after the 2am ‘Clash of the Carcades’ on Maltese roads…

Clearly, then, this is not a mistake we can afford to make again. In the greater scheme of things, it might not be the most urgently-needed reform of our electoral system… but – by the next election, in 2022 - we do need a clear, transparent counting system that we can all verify for ourselves, in real time.

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