The Maltese Election: Making Sense of 95 Percent Turnout
92.95 percent. 93.30 percent. 95.70 percent. No, these figures are not Rotten Tomatoes ratings of Humphrey Bogart’s The Maltese Falcon. These are the voter turnout rates in Malta’s general elections of 2003, 2008, and 2013 — the highest among democratic nations. Voting in the Mediterranean nation of 419,000 citizens is not compulsory, and yet nearly the entire electorate visits the polls on Election Day. How does Malta do it?
The political landscape in Malta is polarized. The two major parties, Labour and Nationalist, are diametrically opposed to one another and separated by a margin of only a few percentage points. The Labour party can be considered a European Social Democrat organization, while the Nationalist party identifies with the Christian Democratic and conservative coalitions across Europe. The pervasive antagonism of the two parties — jostling for control of a single elective institution – works in conjunction with the nation’s distinctive electoral system to amplify the salience of a single vote. Every vote matters in Malta.
Malta employs an electoral system called Single Transferable Voting. It is a method of proportional representation whose first proponent was John Stuart Mill. Voters are presented with a selection of individual candidates to rank in order of preference. Officials must reach a minimum threshold of votes in order to be elected, known as the Droop quota. If multiple candidates reach the minimum, they are each guaranteed a seat in the legislature. In theory, STV is a platform to vocalize specific preferences by voting for candidates with nuanced stances.
STV exists elsewhere in the world, namely in Australia, India, Pakistan, the United States, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand, but the institutional specifics of these systems are too varied to warrant comparison. The only analogous system where STV is applied in all elections is Ireland, but Maltese STV outshines Irish proportional representation, where turnout has not exceeded 70 percent since 1987. Unlike Ireland’s coalition-based government, the straightforward Maltese two-party system has fueled STV to be a vehicle for higher voter turnout. In the Irish coalition system, power and majorities are decided by the party officials after the election. In Malta, the people are endowed with the sole power to determine the structure of government. Maltese popular authority is a noteworthy factor that encourages and empowers voters.
There is a caveat: Voters in Malta rarely stray from the political party with which they identify. But that detail is inconsequential. It is the capability to choose distinct individuals within a party that induces the Maltese population to go to the polls. Intra-party competition is fierce, which means voters can demonstrate their preferences for specific policies via their endorsement of specific candidates within Labour or Nationalist. Political Scientist Mark Franklin lauded the Maltese government – which is centered in the unicameral Parliament in Valletta – for excellent “executive responsiveness.” The political complexion of the Maltese executive has been very much impacted by the choices made in elections ever since Maltese independence from the United Kingdom in 1964. The disparity between the choices voters make and the configuration of the government is minimal compared to that in the United States. The Maltese system is both candidate-centric and party-focused — a dynamic that is central to high voter turnout.
Take the example of Franco Debono, a former Maltese representative from the fifth district, who was elected as part of the Nationalist Party. He was a vocal opponent of many within the party, particularly its leader, Lawrence Gonzi, and defected on a plethora of issues that are parts of the Nationalist platform. Nonetheless, he was elected as a moderate Nationalist, and those who voted him into office recognized his nuanced stances on party issues. Maltese voters may not readily transgress party lines, but that does not prevent them from toying with moderation and compromise within their party’s ideology, expressing well-informed and educated opinions through their selection of candidates. Compromise and conciliation are concepts that STV (or a comparable system) could instill in the disillusioned and disputatious American electorate.
Self-interest drives Maltese voters because every issue is in their backyard; in such a small country, nothing is truly distant. The sense of responsibility among the voters and officials alike is prevalent within the national psyche. Politics take on a greater magnitude than they do in other Western nations. The two major parties have their own newspapers, channels, and radio stations. There is no escaping politics. Candidates spend comparatively exorbitant amounts of money on campaigning and creating name recognition for individual candidates within each party.
All of the coverage contributes to the sense that every vote is influential in deciding an election. In the 2013 general elections, Labour prime minister candidate Joseph Muscat defeated Lawrence Gonzi 54.83 percent to 43.34 percent, a landslide in Maltese terms and a displacement of the Nationalist party that had been in power for fifteen years. Each election is unpredictable, and each government policy and institution is subject to the will of the people.
Of course, there are historical factors and cultural circumstances that contribute to and help maintain Malta’s staggering turnout rates, but the Maltese model remains accessible to other democracies. In fact, the United States can learn from Malta’s precedent. Malta’s population is miniscule in comparison to the American electorate and the demographics are far more homogeneous, but the parallels in the political polarization in the two countries are undeniable.
American elections have also often been close — Mitt Romney (47.2 percent) lost to Barack Obama (51.1 percent) in 2012 — but with only 53.6 percent of eligible voters turning out. What the US is missing is the sentiment of vote salience and the notion that popular feeling matters in politics. Voting within a party in the United States begins and ends with electoral primaries. The turnout is underwhelming: The participation in the 2016 Presidential primaries was 28.5 percent, and that is nearly the record. The possibility of electing candidates that deviate from the two-party, two-candidate dichotomies is virtually null, a fact that could be assuaged with a modified version of STV in the United States.
The infrastructure for high voter turnout exists in the United States, but it is in desperate need of maintenance. It is the responsibility and prerogative of the American public to make best use of the current electoral framework and vote for a responsive and responsible government. Malta demonstrates that no representative can ignore the voice of 95 percent of the electorate — voting holds elected officials accountable to their constituencies. No matter how disillusioned the American public is with its electoral system, there is no excuse for apathy.