As the general election approaches, some Maltese citizens working abroad invariably doubt the hassle they have to endure to exercise their democratic right to vote.
Air Malta offers subsidized flights to voters from the destinations it covers, funded by the government. While some Maltese use it as an opportunity to visit their homes, others feel discouraged by the inconvenience and waste of time it entails when there are other tried and tested methods of casting. It is even worse for those living in countries or regions not covered by the national airline – they often feel they do not have the vote because voting in person is not a viable option for them.
The debate over whether postal voting carries too high a risk of fraud has been a central theme in last year’s U.S. elections, with former President Donald Trump partially blaming it for his defeat. In the German election held in September, more than 50 percent of voters decided to cast their votes by mail. On the other hand, France banned postal voting in 1975 due to massive fraud in Corsica. However, only about one in five EU member states has no postal voting arrangements for those living abroad.
So why is Malta still depriving those who cannot visit a Maltese polling booth of the right to vote?
The risks associated with postal voting should not be underestimated. In addition to the possibility of fraud, the logistics of delivering postal votes to voters abroad and returning them in time for the count is substantial. It can also change the dynamics of election campaigns. Early voting by mail would mean that political parties need a longer campaign to get their message across to likely early voters. Wrong steps at the last stage, scandals and debates on the eve of the election may not have as much impact when a significant number have already voted.
The current personal voting system alone is not without its own flaws and risks. The depressing scenes of sick and disabled people being carried on stretchers to the polls make our electoral system a disgrace. Why can’t our political parties agree that people with a reasonable case should be trusted to vote by another method? It could be argued that the lack of access to the ballot box due to physical or other impediments amounts to discrimination.
The risk of abuse cannot be ruled out either. Even under the present system, it is not uncommon for votes to be bought or sold. Further safeguards can be built into the voting process to ensure that all forms of abuse are deterred and severely punished when they occur.
Malta has a unique obstacle to ‘modernizing’ its voting system – the deep lack of trust that exists between political parties, leading to practical stalemate. Their paralysis on the issue is only harming the democratic process.
Before the last election, research conducted in Germany showed that pensioners and students tended to vote disproportionately by mail, as did self-employed people. The most significant result of this research was that those who had greater confidence in the democratic system were more likely to vote by mail.
We have nothing to be proud of as we remain among the minority of countries that do not allow any form of postal voting. The risks of voting by post can undoubtedly be managed if the political will is there.
There may not be enough time to introduce postal voting before the next election. But, especially with a growing number of Maltese going abroad, the parties must have the courage to face the issue and allow more citizens to vote in the next election.
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