Malta: STV With Some Twists

Single-Transferable Vote (STV) has been in use in Maltese elections since 1921, long before this small Mediterranean Island nation achieved independence from Britain in 1964. Although Malta subsequently became a republic and replaced the office of Governor-General (representative of the Queen) with a President, it retained the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy. The constitution mandates election of the members of the House of representatives, Malta's unicameral parliament, "upon the principle of proportional representation by means of the single transferable vote." The maximum length of a parliamentary term is five years, but the legislature may be dissolved earlier. There are no other elective offices except for local councils introduced by the 1993 Local Councils Act, whose members are elected by STV as well.

For purposes of parliamentary election the country is currently divided into 13 divisions, all of which is of roughly the same population size. In contrast to Ireland, each district elects the same number of MPs (five), for a total size of parliament of 65 (ignoring any bonus seats). Each seat corresponds to approximately 4,200 registered voters. In 1996 the quota needed to secure a seat ranged from 3,245 to 3,519 votes. Candidates may simultaneously stand in two divisions. If they win seats in both, they must resign one, which is then filled through a so-called 'casual election'. This is not a by-election in the conventional sense; instead the winner is determined by applying STV procedures to the ballot papers credited to the vacating candidate in the general election.

On the ballot, candidates are listed alphabetically within party blocs. Voters express their preferences by placing sequential numbers next to the candidates' names. There is no obligation to rank-order all of them or to stick to candidates of a single party. Indeed only a single preference (indicated by the number 1) is required for a vote to be valid. Unlike their Australian counterparts, Maltese voters do not have a whole-ticket option. Nor do the parties prepare a recommended rank-order of candidates.

There are three noteworthy characteristics of Malta's experience with STV:

The first is that although STV can function as a nonpartisan election method, partisanship is a prominent feature of electoral contests in Malta. Voters enjoy but make little use of the opportunity to cross party lines when ranking candidates on their ballots. For this reason a minute percentage of votes (one percent) transfers to candidates of other parties.

A second particularity is the practice of the two major political parties to nominate many more candidates than could possibly win in a district. This may at least in part be explained by the loyalty pattern in preference voting. The parties apparently do not fear a loss of votes due to over-nomination because preference votes given to their less popular candidates will ultimately transfer to other candidates of their party. At the same time, a larger and more variegated roster of candidates may help them attract more votes. For the candidates, of course, this means that they face very intense competition from within the ranks of their own party and must go to great length to earn and retain voter support. To win a seat and to keep it, a politician has to build and maintain a personal support base, but since the vote is secret and the supporters in the constituency are not identified, he or she is well-advised to appeal to and serve a much larger group. This produces very close relationships between representatives and their constituents. The voters have the benefit of being able to call on several MPs representing their district. Due to the fact that at least one member of each major party is elected from each district, they even have a choice by party.

The third important particularity is that modern Malta has a virtually pure two-party system. Indeed this is unusual for PR systems, which reduce barriers for small political parties. The reasons why third parties, which do exist in Malta, have failed to thrive electorally in recent decades are not entirely clear. But the implications of this situation are important: If MPs of only two parties are elected to an odd-number-sized parliament, then one of them will necessarily command a majority and form the government. Moreover, the two major parties, the Maltese Labour Party (MLP) and Nationalist Party (PN), enjoy nearly equal support in the electorate and are thus very competitive. This means that even small distortions in the vote-seat ratios can drastically affect the outcome of an election and thus the control of government. This has in fact been one of the most severe problems with STV in Malta.

In 1981 the MLP won a majority of seats in parliament even though Nationalist Party candidates had received a majority of first-preference votes nation-wide. Allegedly this had occurred as a result of deliberate gerrymandering by the MLP government, although such charges are hard to prove. More importantly, however, this seemingly "perverse" result led to a major constitutional crisis when the Nationalist refused to accept the outcome of the election and walked out of Parliament, thus putting the legitimacy of the entire system in doubt.

The Nationalist boycott ended when the MLP agreed to discuss constitutional reforms to prevent a recurrence of the scenario of victors being turned into losers. In 1987 the constitution was changed accordingly. Article 52, as amended, assures that the party with a majority of first-preference votes will receive as many additional seats as necessary to give it a majority in parliament, thus allowing it to form the next government. A second amendment, adopted more recently, provides for a similar adjustment for the party with the most votes (but not a majority) where more than two parties compete for votes but only two parties win seats in Parliament. In 1987 and 1996 additional seats were thus allocated to the Nationalist Party and the MLP, respectively.

Because of these constitutional amendments the voters' first preference on the ballot is now not only an ordinal vote for the most-favored candidate, but also a categorical vote for a party. In addition, at least as long as the two-party system perseveres, it is an expression of a preference on which party shall form the government. A general election can thus be said to provide a clear judgement on the record of the incumbent government and a clear mandate for the victorious party.

What lessons might be derived from Malta's experience with STV? Malta can be said to provide a cautionary tale. While useful generalizations can be made about the effects of electoral systems, there are sometimes unique circumstances that lead to unexpected results. As seen here, a highly proportional electoral system is also subject to failure under certain conditions. At the same time, however, Malta's handling of the ensuing crisis is cause for optimism, for it provides an apt illustration of how constitutional engineering solutions can be found to redress institutional failures when they occur, and how they can be implemented through bargaining and compromise.

Leaving aside the disproportionality issue that came to a head in 1981, we must note that Malta has had a series of single-party governments and a fair amount of alternation in partisan control. The intense intra-party competition engendered by STV combined with over-nomination has not had the effect of rendering the parties ineffective as political organizations either in government or in opposition.

Malta's experience in administering the allegedly complex single transferable vote system is also encouraging. Although the determination of winners is more cumbersome and time-consuming than is the case with other systems, the process is manageable. The number of counts necessary to fill all seats in a district is not a function of the number of voters/ballots, but of the number of candidates in that district, although a larger electorate (and thus larger number of ballots) will of course increase the workload. Nor do Maltese voters appear to be overly perplexed by their system. Voter participation is almost universal (more than 95 percent in recent elections) and the percentage of invalid ballots is low (rarely more than one percent).

Like the Republic of Ireland, Malta is not an ethnically or religiously diverse country, and thus provides no opportunity to assess the performance of STV in terms of minority representation. It is clear, however, that under Malta's version of STV, minorities would be assured of their ability to elect candidates of their choice irrespective of the preferences of the majority as long as their members make up 17 percent of the voters in any district [Quota = votes/(5+1) +1]. Increasing the number of seats per district could lower this threshold further, although there are obvious practical limitations in terms of ballot length and complexity. It is also clear that women are in a position to elect at least two MPs in each district (or 40 percent of the seats) regardless of the voting preferences of men, although this potential voting power does not currently translate into the election of large numbers of female candidates in Malta.

STV has many favorable characteristics in theory and has worked well in Ireland, Malta, and Australia in practice. What is lacking is a broader experiential base to learn from since the actual use of the system is limited to the Anglo-American world (with very few exceptions). We do not know for sure how it would perform in a variety of other settings. One thing is hardly in doubt, however: STV hands voters the most sophisticated instrument to express their preferences; it meticulously aggregates these diverse preferences and translates them into parliamentary representation. Even where parties are as strong and predominant in politics as in Malta, STV still assures that the voting public will determine the identity of all the politicians that take up seats in parliament to collectively represent the will of the people. Where such grass-roots democratic control is deemed desirable, STV would seem to be the system of choice. The flip side is that the ability of the party leadership to determine the composition of its parliamentary group is limited correspondingly.

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