Greater Choice Draws Massive Turnout in Maltese Ranked Choice Voting Elections

Posted by Jesse Docter on June 21, 2017

The Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat was reelected with a commanding majority on Saturday, June 3rd in Malta, a tiny country and island off the coasts of Italy and Tunisia. Muscat entered the election under scrutiny about corruption allegations brought to light by the Panama Papers leak. Still, strong economic growth and the lowest unemployment rate in Malta’s history allowed Muscat to win a major victory, receiving 55.06% of first preference votes cast. Turnout for the election was extremely high, with 92% of the eligible population voting. The election showed the merits of ranked choice voting (RCV) in a multi-winner system.

The Maltese political system is one of the oldest of its kind in the world. Multi-winner RCV has been in place in the island nation since 1921, surviving several dramatic changes in government and sovereignty. The local system is uncharacteristic of multi-winner RCV, because unlike most regions that use it, in Malta, the parliament is consistently dominated by two parties. The two party system is encouraged by a variety of structural factors, including social polarization and a constitutional amendment that gives the two major parties an advantage.These factors allow two parties to dominate in an electoral system that traditionally empowers third parties. Though voters are, in practice, limited to these two credible parties, they are still able to express their more nuanced political preferences by choosing candidates within a party. Becausethe major challenge for candidates is intra-party competition, candidates have an incentive to appeal strongly to a specific subset of voters. Incumbents most often lose because of shifting preference votes within parties, not by being defeated by the opposing party.

The Maltese electoral result was highly proportional, as 55% of votes were cast for labor, aligning closely with their 55.2% margin of seats in parliament. Multi-winner RCV is a form of proportional representation. Proportional representation is the principle that a legislature should reflect all of the voters who elect them. Like-minded voters should be able to elect representatives in proportion to their number. The Maltese result is an example of proportional representation in action. Maltese elections empower voters by guaranteeing proportional results and giving them greater choice, this often leads to greater turnout on election day.

Voter turnout in Malta is a testament to how the electoral system fosters civic engagement.

The 92% turnout on June 3rd was consistent with the trend; turnout has remained consistently above 90% since 1966. By allowing voters to rank candidates in order of preference and by giving them more choice, RCV has the potential to increase turnout. The system also eliminates the need for primaries and consolidates elections into one vote which increases turnout and guarantees that all voters have a say in every stage of the process.

Robust voter turnout is fundamental to a healthy democracy. When more people get to the polls, more voices are heard and more people are engaged and invested in democracy. However, voter turnout in the U.S. is much lower than in most established democracies, hovering around 60% in recent elections. US election’s produce consistently disproportionate results, and limit the choices of voters. In Malta, voters have faith that the electoral system will give them a greater choice, and a stronger voice; their turnout numbers demonstrate this. By adopting RCV, multi-winner districts, and more policy solutions proposed in the Fair Representation Act, the US could bolster turnout while giving voters more choice.

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