Malta used proportional ranked choice voting (known internationally as the single transferable vote) to elect its parliament on Saturday, March 26, 2022. Located south of Italy in the Mediterranean Sea, the small island country has a population of about 525,000 people. As expected, the incumbent Labor Party won a third term in government. Observers believe the Labor Party’s success was due to the country's strong economy.
There are several unique features of Malta’s proportional ranked choice voting (RCV) system. Two major Maltese parties, the Labor Party and the Nationalist Party, compete across 13 districts electing 5 members each for a total of 65 members. In order to promote majority rule at the national level, the constitution specifies that the party that wins the most first preferences nationwide should win the most seats in the parliament. As a result, additional seats can be added to the existing 65 seats as needed to reward the party with the most first preferences. This rule also entrenches Malta’s two-party system, because if a voter ranks a third-party candidate first, they risk their least preferred party winning the most seats.
Another distinctive element of Malta’s RCV system is that it is common for the two major parties to nominate more candidates than there are seats. Candidates can also compete in two different districts at the same time, helping to inflate the number of candidates competing in a given district. In other countries that use proportional RCV, parties tend to nominate, at most, as many candidates as there are seats, because they are worried that voters might not rank every candidate of their party. Maltese voters do typically rank every candidate of their preferred party, so there is actually an incentive to over-nominate: the more candidates there are, the more likely a voter is to find one personally appealing and rank them first (Schiavone 2011, p. 43).
A final distinctive feature of Malta’s system is high turnout, which regularly exceeds 90 percent of eligible voters. On Saturday, turnout was a record low of 85 percent, which is still higher than the vast majority of countries. The turnout is especially impressive, given that, unlike countries such as Australia, there is no compulsory voting. As argued by Hirczy de Miňo and Lane (2000), the “high turnout in Malta appears to reflect genuine high motivation of the electorate to bring their preferences to bear on election outcomes rather than forced participation brought about by external pressure, which appears to prompt vote spoiling as a form of protest in other nations” (p. 191). Scholars believe the high turnout is driven by the polarized two-party system and the centralization of power in the parliament; in a small country, a few thousand votes can decide which party governs (Hirczy 1995; Siaroff & Merer 2002). As decided by Maltese voters on Saturday in another high turnout election, the Labor Party will govern for the next term.
While the majority of countries use proportional voting to elect representative bodies, the specifics vary greatly. As Americans debate the kinds of reforms necessary to put our democracy on track, it’s useful to consider which policies work and why in countries big and small. By learning from overseas examples, we can create a truly American form of proportional representation that brings new voices to the forefront and ensures voters are represented no matter their background or what district they live in.
An example ballot in Malta (Schiavone 2011, p. 56)
Hirczy de Miňo, W. (1995) ‘Explaining near-universal turnout: The case of Malta’, in European Journal of Political Research, 27, pp. 255-272.
Hirczy de Miňo, Wolfgang and Lane, John.C (2000) ‘Malta: STV in a two-party System’, In Elections in Australia, Ireland and Malta under the Single Transferable Vote – Reflections on an Embedded Institution edited by Shaun Bowler and Bernard Grofman. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, pp.178-204.
Schiavone, Hermann. 2011. The Single Transferable Vote (STV) system and its consequences for representation: the case of Malta. PhD thesis, University of Manchester.
Siaroff, Alan and Merrer, John, W.A., (2002) ‘Parliamentary election turnout in Europe since 1990’, Political Studies, 50 (5), pp. 916 – 92.