The only way for Maltese abroad to cast their vote is to hop on a plane back to Malta on a flight subsidised by taxpayers. In the age of smarter everything, Jessica Arena asks why such a costly method is still being used.
It cost taxpayers more than €800,000 to fly Maltese citizens back home to vote in the 2019 MEP elections.
One voter, Robert Zammit, who lives in London, finds it “ludicrous” that the only way he can exercise his right to vote is to “fly across Europe, fill a paper and pop it into a ballot box, and then fly back”.
“This is making a shambles of our right to vote,” Zammit said.
“Election flights cost €1,500 in subsidies for every returning voter. For many of us, the expense runs into additional hundreds of euros when one factors in additional transport costs. Subsidised flights are only offered to a small number of airports – so many of us are effectively disenfranchised.”
The environmental considerations of flying and the health risks posed by COVID-19 must also be taken into consideration, he argues, as the next general election looms next year.
“At a time when our prime minister is busy flaunting his environmental credentials at COP26 in Glasgow, flying thousands of people to Malta just so they can cast a vote is an insult to our country’s commitment to net-zero.”
And it has just been reported that a fifth of Malta’s COVID-19 cases are imported. “Why make the situation worse – and risk people’s health in the process?”
Zammit and others have been campaigning for the introduction of other ways to vote from abroad, such as postal voting and proxy voting.
In 2013, the Labour Party had promised to facilitate voting for Maltese living abroad. In 2018, then prime minister Joseph Muscat said the government was “considering” other ways to vote.
“I and many others eligible to vote here in the UK have regularly voted via postal votes. There is no excuse for the Maltese government to not do the same,” Zammit said.
So what is the government waiting for?
The issue runs deeper than a simple willingness to introduce amendments to electoral law that would allow for alternative voting methods.
Sources familiar with internal debates on the matter believe the deep distrust between the political parties has led to an effective stalemate, and this serves both parties.
For some candidates, every vote counts in Malta’s closely fought electoral contests. And past elections have shown that even a thousand votes can be enough to swing the final result. So methods that would tend to give more freedom to voters and eliminate the oversight of electoral commissioners are frowned upon.
Family Minister Michael Falzon, who served as the Labour Party’s election manager for a decade, believes the failure to adopt new systems is to do with the difficulty of coming to an agreement across the political spectrum.
“Exploring new methods to be used would require mutual agreement, which also tends to be conditioned by the trust that voters put into a new system,” he said.
Distrust between the political parties has led to an effective stalemate
“One must also keep in mind that, barring the past two general election results, margins had been very slim between the two parties. Any new changes may bring an element of suspicion, wrongly or rightly so.
“This mistrust also tends to be felt more within the party in opposition and its supporters, whichever party it happens to be.”
The Nationalist Party is open to discussing changes, so long as security can be guaranteed, a PN spokesperson said in answer to questions.
He cited the various in-built mechanisms to ensure that the right to vote is exercised solely by the person entitled to do so and without any undue external influence.
“The whole process is monitored by the electoral commission together with parties’ representatives to ensure the security of the process from when the voter submits their ballot till when the ballot boxes are actually opened to be counted,” he said.
“The party is always willing to discuss any electoral reform, such as addressing the issue of the power of incumbency, so long as the security of the process can be guaranteed.”
It’s ultimately the taxpayer who picks up the tab for the lack of agreement.
During the 2017 general election, 2,052 voters took up the scheme, which was available across all scheduled Air Malta flights, as well as extra ones from Brussels and London.
George Vital Zammit, the head of the Public Policy department at the University of Malta, feels it is about time the long-standing practice is revised.
He pointed out that according to the Electoral Commission Report, in 2019 the cost of such subsidies amounted to €815,000.
“This amount is expected to be exceeded in a general election as turnout is always higher,” he said.
The solution: voting by mail
While electronic voting might raise issues of security and identification, early vote-by-mail ballots can be used by eligible voters living abroad, Georges Vital Zammit suggested.
“In this process, our diplomatic missions would play a central role in distributing and collecting the ballots for onward transmission to the Electoral Commission using diplomatic mail. Where diplomatic missions are absent, the task would be delegated to designated consular offices, if possible.”
Malta is not the only country that requires voters to be physically present to exercise their rights. However, several have electoral systems that allow expatriate citizens to vote in their country of residence.
Italian citizens living abroad, for example, may vote either by post or at an Italian embassy or consulate. It is only if there is no diplomatic representation in the country that the government subsidises the cost of travel for people to return to Italy to vote.
Finland, which grants similar rights to its citizens, allows expatriate voters to cast their ballot by mail or at any Finnish mission abroad and even organises advanced voting.
According to the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, just under 1.5 million votes were cast in advance in the 2021 municipal elections, representing some 33 per cent of all eligible voters.