The Malta Independent 22 February 2020, Saturday

No such thing as a wasted vote

Sunday, 28 April 2019, 09:30 Last update: about 11 months ago

One could argue that, in certain democratic countries, there is such a thing as a wasted vote, due to the way in which their electoral system works. This is certainly not the case in Malta, however, which has the Single Transferable Vote system. I am therefore going to explain why it is crucial to provide the first preference vote to Partit Demokratiku, in this crucial window in our political history, offering our country the best hope for a positive transformation.

The Single Transferable Vote system allows us to vote for candidates according to a list of preferences. We have our first preference, our second preference, third preference and so on and so forth. This means that one can vote for the third party with the first set of preferences, and then add the remaining preferences to candidates on another party’s list. If the third party candidates are not elected, then one’s vote will be inherited by the candidates from another party’s list, if one continues with one’s preferences on that list. 

In the first round of vote counting, all the first preference votes are added up, and anyone who meets the quota of votes is immediately elected. Each election, on any level, has a different quota for a candidate to be elected on the first count of votes. It varies according to the population and, therefore, as the population increases over time, so the number of votes needed to reach the quota increases. Once a candidate meets the quota, any extra first preference votes the candidate has earned are distributed according to who was chosen as the second preference. That is to say, if the Partit Demokratiku candidate for whom one votes is elected on the first round of votes because the quota has been met, then one’s extra vote is transferred to the candidate listed as second preference.

As can be seen, it is very difficult indeed for votes to be wasted in our Single Transferable Vote system. This is the case even when a candidate is too popular, rather than not popular enough. After the first round of votes have been counted, we begin the tournament-style process of elimination. The weakest candidate is then eliminated in the next round. For every person who gave that candidate their number one vote, those votes are transferred to each voter’s second preference candidate.

Once again, votes are not wasted. The votes of those who voted for the weakest candidate, who was immediately eliminated, were then transferred to other candidates! Afterwards, the second weakest candidate is removed from the race in the next run, and this person’s votes are once again distributed. This process will continue as weaker candidate after weaker candidate is eliminated, until only the strongest are left, progressing in the race as they inherit votes from those who have been eliminated. 

It is actually an exciting procedure to watch. I will never forget following the results coming in on the Electoral Commission’s website in 2017, as I followed Dr Marlene Farrugia battle it out against George Pullicino and others. Would that finally be the hour where a third party would be elected to Parliament for the first time since Independence? I watched our party leader inch ahead, inheriting second and third preference votes from other candidates as they were eliminated each round, until at last she made it.

With the new electronic counting system in place, I am sure most of us will miss the fanfare of the Counting Hall and the results slowly coming in. It was actually an educational process to be able to watch the Single Transferable Vote system in action.

I went through the same rush watching Dr Godfrey Farrugia fight it out in District 7. Had he started with a low number of first preference votes, he would have been eliminated early on, and that is exactly why it is absolutely crucial that one gives the first preference vote – the number one – to a third party candidate and that one provides the subsequent votes of this kind to the other candidates on the same third party list.

Those who intend to vote for a strong candidate first and only then give their second preference vote to a third party, will probably never see the third party survive long in the race. One has to think strategically.

As can be seen, the system is actually designed to be friendly to third parties. The reason that this great confusion has arisen in which we are not making the most of it is mainly due to the fact that the two parties have been hammering a false narrative into our heads for decades. Obviously, they do not want competition, and there is a mechanism in general elections that makes parties fight harder for first preference votes. Especially in MEP and local council elections, however, there is no such thing as a wasted vote. 

Timothy Alden is deputy leader of Partit Demokratiku

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