How people elect parliaments
The Maltese people have participated in their early national election in surprisingly low numbers, with a mere 91% turning out to vote.
Malta prides itself on astoundingly high electoral turnouts by world standards, all the more so for voting not being legally compulsory.
Australia – with compulsory electoral registration and voting – regularly achieves election turnouts of around 90-95%. These high outcomes have been slowly shrinking in recent years, partly because modern methods of updating electoral rolls have become increasingly comprehensive, driving down apparent turnout rates.
Brazil nominally requires all citizens to be automatically registered for voting, although actual election turnouts are less assured.
But tiny Mediterranean nation Malta (340,000 voters), without any voting compulsion, has traditionally led the world in election turnout rates. Yesterday’s election turnout of 91% is an historically low result.
Voters in the 12th electoral district, on the north coast of the main island of Malta, (there are 13 electoral districts) will be particular embarrassed, with nearly 14% failing to attend the polls.
But Malta has other democratic advantages apart from very high participation rates. Due to its unique electoral system, over 80% of the Maltese people will be represented in the new Kamra tad-Deputati (House of Deputies), making it the most representative national parliament in the world.
The incumbent Maltese Labour Party (Partit Laburista) government called an early election in April to try to resolve a number of political difficulties. The government was suffering ongoing accusations of corruption, including allegations of close relationships between government figures and the Mossack Fonseca affair in Panama.
But Maltese voters have decided to leave the Labour government in power, giving it 55% of the vote to the opposition’s Nationalist party’s 44%.
The minor Maltese parties, for once expected to do well as a result of the political turmoil, still registered a paltry 1.7% of the vote in total. No minor party or independent candidate will be elected.
Malta uses the single transferable vote (STV) electoral system. Across the two islands of the nation there are 13 electoral districts, each electing 5 members based on preferential (ranked) ballots.
Unusually for STV systems, candidates are permitted to nominate in two electoral districts. Most candidates choose to do so, creating a backup means of getting elected.
Three candidates – the two party leaders, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat (Labour) and Simon Busuttil (Nationalist), and a second Labour candidate – have achieved a full STV quota of first preference votes in both the districts in which they were nominated. They will now withdraw in either of the districts, resulting in a by-election among the unsuccessful candidates of their party.
A total of 14 further candidates have also won seats on first preferences in one district. 48 more candidates will be elected to the 65-seat Kamra through the distribution of preferences which will occur over the coming days.
Further candidates may also win in two districts during the preference counting, leading to further strategic withdrawals.
Maltese vote counters sorting votes in their STV electoral system (image: Keith Micallef/Times of Malta)
Unusually for STV systems, Malta also has a ‘top-up’ rule for ensuring that the final ratio of seats between the major parties is proportional to the national total votes each party wins.
The party-proportionality rule is only used if no third party or independent wins any seats, but that has proved true in this election.
On the aggregate vote shares across the 13 districts, the Labour Party should initially win 37 seats to the Nationalists’ 28.
The proportionality rule would then work to award one more seat to the Nationalists, making no real difference to the overall political situation. The extra seat winner will be found by identifying the next most successful individual Nationalist candidate across the 13 districts.
The Maltese system overall ensures that all votes have close to equal influence on election results, and achieves extraordinary high rates of direct representation of each voter in the final parliament, as well as satisfying the test of overall party proportionality.