In a few days time, Malta goes to the polls at the culmination of a long electoral campaign. But many people are still unclear on how exactly our convoluted voting system works. Whether you’re a first-time voter, or simply adrift in a sea of quotas, districts, ones and twos, we clear things up.
What is Proportional Representation?
In Malta, government is elected using an electoral system known as Proportional Representation (PR) using a Single Transferable Vote (STV). PR means that parties are given seats in parliament in direct proportion to their support in the popular vote. In other words, a party with 40% of the vote should have 26 out of the 65 seats (at least) in parliament. The party (or parties) that can claim a majority of the seats in parliament gets to form a government. Simple as that.
Did you say Single Transferable Vote?
STV is a system where everyone is given a single vote, but that vote can be transferred from one candidate to another to ensure that it isn’t wasted. This is done by numbering your candidates in the order you would like to see them elected. A 1 next to your favourite candidate makes your vote valid, while numbering other candidates with a 2, 3, 4, 5 and so on increases the electoral power of your vote.
So I get to vote more than once?
Not exactly. Think of school children electing three class prefects. The candidates all stand up at the front of the class, and students vote by standing behind them. At first, very popular students have lots of people behind them, and the least popular ones only have one or two. But the students behind the most popular soon realise that their favourite can get elected without their support, and move to their second favourite to help him get in. Similarly, the students behind the least popular candidates realise that their favourite has no chance, and move to someone else. Eventually, all the students have gathered behind three candidates. Those three candidates are elected, and even if not everyone got to elect their favourite, everyone’s vote was counted and made a difference.
All right, so how does it actually work?
Let’s get technical. Malta is divided into thirteen electoral districts, with a handful of towns and villages to a district. In each district, the number of registered voters (about 25-30,000) is divided by the number of available seats (usually 5) plus one. The resulting number is rounded up to remove fractions, giving us the electoral quota (usually around 3500 votes).
This is where we get to the counting process. First, ballot papers are sorted according to the first preference (that is, the number 1 vote) listed. Once this has been done, some candidates will have reached the quota. Those candidates are elected.
Some candidates will have more than the quota. In that case, their ‘extra’ or ‘surplus’ votes are transferred to other candidates based on the proportion of second preferences (number 2 votes).
The votes are then counted again. The transferred votes will be enough to make some new candidates reach the quota. If nobody new is elected, the candidate with the least amount of votes is eliminated from the race, and his votes transferred. The process then continues until all seats are filled. Sometimes, when the race for the final seat begins, no candidate has enough votes to reach the quota, even once all possible votes have been transferred. In that case, the candidate with the most votes out of the remaining contestants is automatically elected, and the count is closed.
How many candidates can I vote for?
As many as there on the ballot sheet! You only have one vote, so really you can only vote for one candidate. But you can list as many preferences or as few preferences as you like, to make sure that your vote makes as much of an impact as possible.
Can I vote for candidates from different parties?
Yes, you can express preferences for candidates from as many different parties as you want: cross-voting in this way is not only valid but actively encouraged by the system. That said, one thing to bear in mind is that because of a quirk in our system, your first preference vote is considered not only a vote for the candidate but also a vote for the party you want to form a government.
So cross-voting doesn’t invalidate my vote?
No. If you’re worried about whether your vote is valid, just make sure you don’t make any mark that isn’t a number, mark anywhere outside the designated boxes, or list the same number more than once.
How should I vote?
Who you vote for is up to you and you alone, but here’s what to do on March 9th:
- First, inform yourself. Use this handy app to find out the candidates in your district. Read up on what they stand for and what their parties are proposing.
- At the polling station, all candidates will be listed in alphabetical order grouped by party, with their party’s official logo by their name.
- Place a 1 (one) next to the candidate you most want to see elected
- Place subsequent numbers (2,3,4,5 and so on) next to any other candidates you would like to see elected. You can mark as many different candidates (and parties) as there are options.
- If you make a mistake, ask for a new ballot sheet and begin again.