Posted on March 14, 2013
On March 9, 2013, the citizens of Malta cast their ballots for their national Parliament and local governments. The elections were conducted using choice voting (also known as the single transferable vote), FairVote's preferred fair voting method of conducting multi-seat elections in the United States. There are, of course, inherent differences between elections in the small Mediterranean nation of Malta and in the U.S. But Malta's electoral experience demonstrates several of the ways in which choice voting could improve American elections - starting with the fact that Malta consistently finds itself atop the world rankings in voter turnout for countries without compulsory voting.
First, the election results: the center-left Labour Party defeated the center-right Nationalist Party, gaining control of the Parliament of Malta for the first time since 1998. Labour's candidates won a clear majority of 54.8% of votes as measured by first choice rankings. Because choice voting is a fair voting system (that is, a form of proportional representation), a change in leadership when the majority of voters decided they wanted a new government was guaranteed. That is not the case in the United States, in which the Republican Party won a large majority of House seats despite receiving fewer votes than Democrats in 2012.
Accountable governments are characteristic of all proportional systems, but choice voting has some unique benefits. Malta's national elections are most distinguished by their unusually high voter turnout - consistently well over 90%, including 93% this past Saturday. Though these high turnout rates are caused by multiple factors, political scientists have suggested that Malta's use of choice voting is at the very least a major contributor.
That's because choice voting maximizes the importance of a vote, allowing voters to rank candidates of all parties in order of preference and elect candidates with a relatively low threshold. Every district in the country is extremely competitive, as not only are both major parties represented in each district (all 13 districts will have bipartisan representation in the new parliament) but also candidates have to compete against other members of their own party. Parties often run more than five candidates in a district among which even strict partisans can choose. No voter is marginalized, and all have the ability to affect the election outcome with their vote.
It is worth mentioning what choice voting has not been able to accomplish in Malta: representation in Parliament of more than two parties. The two-party structure has a long history in Malta, and third parties have never been able to make much headway in spite of the low threshold to win a seat: just 16.7% of a district's vote. Things were made much harder for third parties when Malta modified its single transferable vote system to add seats after each election that ensure that the party that receives the most first choice rankings always gets the most seats, in response to a political crisis in 1981 when that did not occur.
While accountability is now guaranteed, voters are forced to use their first choice rankings strategically if they want to help their preferred major party win control of the government, instead of being able to vote for a third party candidate who might be their favorite option. Because of that, FairVote does not advocate for such a rule when choice voting is used in the U.S.
Though voters are, in practice, limited to two credible parties in Malta, they are still able to express their more nuanced political preferences by choosing candidates within a party. Because the biggest 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.
This effect can help to mitigate the political polarization in Malta's elections by ensuring that the slate of Members of Parliament (MPs) from a district represents the entire political spectrum, not just two poles. For one example of how this works in practice, take the case of Franco Debono, a former MP from District 5. Depono single-handedly brought down Lawrence Gonzi's Nationalist government by defecting to the opposition on a budget vote in December of 2012, forcing Gonzi to call elections. In the 2008 election, District 5 elected three candidates from the Labour Party and two from the Nationalist Party, one of which was Debono. Clearly, Debono was the more moderate - or at least independent-minded - of the two Nationalist representatives.
In 2013, Debono decided not to run for re-election in District 5. In a year that decisively favored the Labour Party, Debono's seat went to Labour, as four Labour candidates won election from District 5. Most likely, the Labour candidate who will be effectively "replacing" Debono will be similarly moderate.
This phenomenon is exactly what FairVote projects would happen if choice voting were implemented in five-seat districts in the United States. A district split evenly between Democrats and Republicans would elect both moderate and more extreme candidates from each party, with a moderate candidate elected from the middle seat on the spectrum that would switch between the parties depending on which party had the advantage in each election. Though the two-party structure is just as entrenched in the U.S. as it is in Malta, choice voting would allow voters to elect candidates from across the political spectrum in each multi-member district.
Choice voting in Malta is without a doubt a success story, and the 2013 elections were no exception. Malta's elections had far higher turnout, voter choice, and government accountability than their November 2012 counterpart in the United States. Though Malta cannot be directly compared to the U.S., the effectiveness of choice voting there tells a powerful story about just how much better American elections could be.