How Malta Votes: An Overview

This brief account will describe the unusual system which Malta uses for its elections and then give a summary of the outcome of Maltese elections over the years.

A. The Single-Transferable-Vote System

There are only two countries in the world, Malta and Ireland, which elect their national legislatures by way of a method called the single transferable vote (STV). This method was invented in the 19th century, was ardently advocated by John Stuart Mill, and continues to intrigue political scientists the world over. Many political reformers still regard it as one of the fairest ways to translate the wishes of voters into parliamentary seats for candidates and parties. The manner in which STV is conducted involves some rather complex procedures. Still, the essentials of the method can be described in fairly simple terms.

Under STV, all voters are asked to give a preference ranking to as many candidates on the ballot as they wish, in numerical order: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, etc.. When indicating their preferences voters may choose candidates from different political parties although in actual practice Maltese voters rarely stray from the candidates of their chosen party.

In order to win a seat, a candidate must receive a specified "quota" of votes in the district. This quota is, broadly speaking, determined by taking the number of valid votes and dividing them by the number of seats plus one. For instance, if in a particular district 5 candidates are to be elected and 12,000 votes have been cast altogether, then the quota would be 12,000 divided by 6 (i.e. 5+1) or 2,000 votes. [To be precise, the formula actually is (votes/(seats +1)+1).]

When the ballots are first counted, the first (number 1) preferences on all ballots are examined, and any candidate who received enough first preference votes to meet the quota will be declared elected. It often happens that some candidates have more first preference votes than the quota actually required for election. In that case, all votes which a candidate received in excess of the needed quota are declared surplus votes. But these votes are not disregarded; instead they are transferred to the candidate who was indicated on the ballot as the voter's next-ranked choice. Once these votes have been transferred, a second count will be made to determine whether any other candidate has now achieved the quota.

Additional counts will usually be necessary to determine the various winners in succession. If on any count no candidate meets the quota, the candidate with the fewest number of votes is eliminated and his or her votes are transferred to the candidate who is the next-ranked choice on the ballot paper. (If a ballot paper no longer indicates a preference for a remaining candidate, then the vote becomes 'non-transferable' and remains unused.) These transfers of votes, from candidates who have either been elected or eliminated, continue through successive counts until all seats have been filled.

This method of election differs significantly from the first-past-the-post, winner-take-all system used in Great Britain and the U.S., and from the party-list proportional representation system used in many West European countries. The most important features of the single transferable vote method are that (1) several candidates will be elected in each district; (2) voters cast their votes for individual candidates in preferential order, not for a list of party candidates; and (3) voters are free to distribute their preferences among candidates of different parties or independent candidates. These features recommend themselves to many electoral reformers, especially those who are concerned about the adequate representation of various minorities among the electorate.

 B. The Voters' Choice

 How have Maltese voters acted under the STV system and with what results? Here are five noteworthy aspects of Malta's electoral system in action.

1. Over the years, Malta has moved from a multi-party to a two-party system. In the 1950s and 1960s a number of smaller parties secured a substantial number of votes and some seats in the legislature. These smaller parties included the Constitutionalists, the Gozo Party, the Maltese Workers Party, the Democratic Action Party and the Christian Workers Party. None of them lasted for more than a few years. Since 1971 the two major parties -- the Nationalists (PN) and the Labour Party (MLP) -- have dominated the electoral arena with no serious competition from any other party. The most recent third-party challenge has came from the Alternattiva Demokratika; in 1992 it polled only 1.7% of the vote and it fared even worse in the three succeeding elections.

2. Political competition in Malta is marked by a high degree of partisanship. Divisions among the political parties are sharply drawn; political discussion is often heated; and there have even been a few instances of political violence in recent years. Intense partisanship goes hand in hand with a high voter turnout at elections. Maltese voters have the highest turnout figures of all Western democracies. Also, they show their partisan commitment at election time by the remaining impressively loyal to their political party. Even though the electoral system permits it, voters hardly ever split heir voting preferences among candidates of different parties (in 1992, a mere 1.2% of the Labour votes and 2.0% of the Nationalist votes were transferred to candidates of another party).

3. While political competition is vigorous and boisterous, none of the Maltese parties preach revolutionary change. They differ on many issues (privatization, the European Union, taxation and the like) but they are agreed on the fundamentals of the constitutional order and democratic processes. Unlike some other European countries, Malta has not had to contend with anti-regime parties that threatened the political system itself. The Communist Party made one attempt to participate in elections in 1987; it polled 119 votes (0.05%).

4. The electoral support for Maltese political parties is not only sharply divided along partisan lines; it is also distributed fairly equally among the two major parties. All elections since 1971 have been close contests between the two major parties, with the result that parliamentary majorities for the parties have been wafer-thin. There have been no landslide victories and the voter "mandate" which winning parties usually claim has tended to be remarkably weak over the years. The 51.8% of the vote which the PN received in 1992 was exceptionally high for a party. In order to seize the reins of government, the PN needed only 42.0% of the popular vote in 1962 and 47.9% in 1966. (The popular vote and legislative seat percentages for each election are provided at the end of this article.)

5. When the parties are fairly evenly matched in voter support, then the process of translating votes into seats can produce unexpected and distorting outcomes, as was demonstrated in a spectacular fashion by the "perverse" result of the 1981 election. In that year the MLP gained 49.1% of the popular vote yet obtained 52.3% of the seats in parliament and formed the government. While some disproportionality between vote and seat percentages has been quite common, what made the situation unprecedented was that the rival party (the PN) had actually obtained a majority of the popular vote but was not rewarded with a majority of the legislative seats. The same situation occurred again in 1987 and once more in 1996, but by then a newly adopted constitutional amendment provided that the party with a majority of the popular vote would be awarded a sufficient number of additional seats to give it a legislative majority.

The outcome of the 1981 election highlighted a common problem with electoral systems, that of systematic disproportionality between vote percentages and seat percentages of political parties. Sometimes, such disproportionality is engineered through dubious practices like "gerrymanders." Often it results from built-in factors such as small election districts. Malta has constituencies with five members, each seat therefore being 20% of a district's total. However, since votes never distribute themselves into neat 20% segments, there will always be some disproportion between vote and seat percentages at the district level. Usually these disproportionalities tend to cancel each other out on a national basis; but there is no assurance that this will happen in every election.

Ever since the adoption of STV in Malta in 1921 there have been recurrent expressions of discontent and proposals for change. These were usually prompted by a party's disappointment with the outcome of a previous election or concern about its electoral prospects. In the wake of the 1981 election result have come the most far-reaching and sustained attempts at electoral reform. These proposals, vigorously promoted by the then Nationalist government, proclaimed the dual aim of assuring both proportionality and "governability" (the latter meaning one-party control of government). The proposed adoption of the d'Hondt method on a national basis would have promoted proportionality. But it failed to garner the needed bipartisan support in parliament. Instead, constitutional amendments adopted in 1987 and 1996 seek to assure "governability" by providing one-party legislative majorities as much as possible, even at the expense of proportionality.

Updated February 2014

YEARPARTYPercent of:YEARPARTYPercent of:

* = Having won a majority of the first-preference votes, the Nationalists in 1987 and 2008, and Labour in 1996 were allotted four extra seats. This gave them a one-seat majority in the legislature.

† = In 2013, the Nationalists were allotted four extra seats to adjust for their share of the first-preference votes.