Absentee ballot systems
There is something remarkably inefficient about flying people from one side of Europe to the other for them to cast their ballot in a general election. Especially when there are valid questions about who is eligible to vote in the first place. And yet, that is exactly the situation come election time. This year was no different.
At the start of the year a group of us started an online petition, asking our elected representatives to think about absentee ballot systems. The petition garnered 1,000 votes in less than two weeks. That was swiftly followed by all three parties putting absentee ballot systems on their electoral manifesto.
Our Facebook group looked at the cost of flying potential voters in, possible weaknesses in the current system, and what alternatives we could propose. In the process, some of us also questioned whether we were still eligible to vote in the first place – in spite of the voting documents waiting for us back home.
We identified two key questions. First, whether the current system of flying people to Malta is adequate, and whether it does indeed make voting as easy as possible – within acceptable, though undeniably subjective, limits. The second question relates to eligibility. When exactly do Maltese people resident abroad really lose their right to vote?
Our discussions focused primarily on the first of these questions. Almost all of us agreed that the current system is sub-optimal, for a number of reasons. For starters, flying home to vote is not as easy as it sounds, especially for those of us in full-time jobs, with families, or living hours away from the nearest eligible airport.
It is also unlikely to be cheaper – in the long run – relative to a number of alternatives, such as casting one’s vote at a Maltese embassy, filling in a postal vote, or even, in this day and age of electronic identity cards, voting online.
The second issue relates to the elephant in the room – voter eligibility. A quick anecdotal glance at our Facebook group suggests that a substantial proportion of us do not necessarily satisfy the letter of the constitutional requirement to have spent at least six of the last 18 months in Malta.
Whether we satisfy the spirit of that requirement is really down to our Courts, as was made clear in a 2003 Constitutional Court ruling on the matter.
Some argue that the “who”, and the “how” questions are distinct. I have some sympathy for that argument, but clarifying the deeper question about eligibility would easily solve the dilemma about what absentee voting system we should adopt.
In other words, we cannot solve the question of “how”, without knowing exactly “who” it is for. And the “who” is clearly the crux of this matter.
A particularly strong proposal from our discussions is for a threshold system based on, among other things, residence, tax status, and some measure of association with the home country. Another proposal is for voting eligibility to apply for a number of years since the individual last paid tax in Malta. There are others. They deserve serious discussion. We should aim high – just high enough not to have to take to the skies come the next election.