Although greatly expected, the Labour Movement scored a resounding and overwhelming electoral victory on the 26th of March, a significant historical date that will go down in the annals of Malta’s political history. This notwithstanding, it transpires that there is a substantial percentage of the electorate that, for some reason or other, remains indifferent or decides not to participate in this very important and democratic process that comes along only once every five years and is so pivotal to the future of our country. It is imperative that this growing phenomenon is accurately analysed, addressed, and somehow catered for, as otherwise, we risk eventually having a numerical majority that is not truly representative of the majority of the Maltese population.
Prior to the last general election, I have had more than a close friend or two telling me that they did not plan to vote ever again and that none of their family members were voting this time around. They were not party-line voters and did not care who wins the election because no elected politicians had helped during the hard and dark times that we had been through during the last two or three years. Others have been reporting that they never feel represented by the candidates the parties in power keep offering up. Deciding not to vote is threatening to become not an uncommon stance in Malta and non-voters can affect outcomes.
Generally, people who choose not to vote fall into several camps. One set of non-voters are the chronically sceptical. People who are less trusting of their fellow citizens and who are less trusting of government officials to do the right thing are less likely to vote because voting is likely to be seen as useless. Voters who follow the news but think the electoral system is rigged or that voting does not matter fail to show up for that reason. I strongly suspect that there is a growing chunk of this category of non-voting, silent electorate, the majority of whom appear to be hailing from the younger generations. This is one area where this Labour Movement has to heavily concentrate on.
I’ve had more than a close friend or two telling me that they did not plan to vote ever again and that none of their family members were voting this time around.
Another group of non-voters are people who do not like the candidates. We have seen this conspicuously within the Nationalist camp where a good number of candidates put forward absolutely did not leave their mark for a thousand and one reasons. Until and unless there are candidates whom people feel they could vote for in good conscience, they will not vote. Voting legitimises the government structure we have in place and demands that the electorate accepts the outcome, whether they like who makes it to Castille or not. This type of non-voters is conveying a clear message that reads candidates and government officials are not quite up to snuff, that they yearn for those who can do better, be better. And if someone better steps up to the plate, they will be first in line to cast their ballot. This can be considered as what I would label as “principled abstention”.
Still, other people choose not to vote because news and politics are not of interest to them. Some people find politics conflictual, difficult to understand, or are preoccupied with other aspects of their lives, and even here, young people often fall into this category because they follow news less closely and are more likely than older Maltese to get their news from social media. They do not feel especially well-informed about political candidates and think that the act of voting is more difficult than older generations do.
For some, political affiliation or interest is not part of their self-expression. When measuring someone’s propensity to vote, it matters whether a person is interested in politics or sees politics as something central to their sense of self. All other things being equal, people who are less interested in politics, or who do not see their political beliefs as central to their identity, are less likely to vote. This is, again, another area where the Labour Movement has to input great efforts in its endeavour to transform people who are relatively close-minded and do not like new things and those who are less outgoing and assertive, therefore are less likely to vote, into extroverts and people who are more open to new experiences and, consequently, are more likely to vote. The Movement’s LEAD programme and other branches of the central administration can contribute in this sense by outreaching more to the upcoming young generations entitled to vote next time around.
But who does and does not vote is complex. Most Maltese do not fall neatly into any one category. They vote inconsistently, or at moments when they feel like their vote has a chance to make a difference, or when the stakes of not voting are just too high, which is how the Labour administration was describing the last general election. While there can be a lot that goes into a person’s decision to vote or not, the fact that thousands of people vote at all is a wonder. In many ways, it is remarkable that people will stand in line for hours to do something that might have little impact on their personal lives. The collective willingness to participate in democracy is on some level, an act of selflessness. There is some evidence that people vote for altruistic reasons, so it is not a stretch to argue that a failure to vote is callous, assuming that a person has easy access to voting and is not suffering from vote suppression.
One thing is for sure, the growing numbers of non-voters from one election to another simply cannot be ignored. Reaching out to them in a well-prepared, effective and convincing manner, the Labour Movement stands to reap great dividends from this withering electorate. The Movement needs to re-ignite their decision to cast their ballot with a sense of motivation within the coming five years, be it enthusiasm about the candidates, belief in the importance of voting itself, or a sense that anything can change as the result of a single vote.