The long road to overseas voting

Subsidised flights represented a whopping 22% of what the 2022 general election cost to the Maltese taxpayer.

Some weeks ago, a scheme offering subsidised flights to Maltese abroad to vote in the elections of 8th June was announced.

The main features of the scheme are not very different from those of other schemes offered for all general and European elections and referendums since 1992. What has certainly changed is the number of beneficiaries. While the general voting population has only increased by just under 20% since the 1990s, the beneficiaries of the scheme, a few hundred when the first scheme was launched, have more than tripled in the meantime.

This represents a significant expense. The scheme to bring voters over for the general election in 2022 cost €1.9 million according to a report from the Electoral Commission. The general election of 2022 was an expensive election to start with, having to be organised with a number of Covid restrictions still in place. And yet, subsidised flights still represented a whopping 22% of what that election cost to the Maltese taxpayer.

These days I hear less complaints from locals that this is just a cheap holiday for voters from abroad. Probably, there’s now the realisation that there’s also cost for the beneficiaries. First, most beneficiaries have jobs. To travel to vote, they have to take leave, that is, family time, that has to be requested beforehand and coordinated with colleagues. Second, many beneficiaries have children of school age and spouses who are also expats. You cannot just disappear for a long weekend, especially when you have no extended family to offer support. Finally, not everyone lives close to an airport from where the national airline operates and time and money are needed to get you to that subsidised flight.

If the scheme is so inefficient why doesn’t the country do like most of its European counterparts and seriously consider alternatives? Sure, all of Labour’s and the Nationalist Party’s electoral programmes since 2013 have included the promise of voting from abroad. But despite claims since that the matter was being looked into, including by the Electoral Commission, nothing seems to have happened in more than a decade.

And there is a lot of prior thinking and planning that must be done. Organising an election is a highly technical matter, every step of every procedure needing to be clearly set out beforehand. Giving the opportunity to vote from abroad is not a simple question of having a ballot box in an embassy instead of in a school.

Neither is it a question of simply grafting a few new procedures onto electoral law. Take for example, the question the role of the voting document where it to be applied to this case. There is little point in being able to vote from Brussels, or London, or Rome if your voting document has been delivered to an address in Mosta, in Żabbar, or in Qormi. The idea of having Maltese policemen deliver voting documents to addresses abroad may be amusing but, of course, totally impractical.

We might have to take a closer look at the entire process and be ready to make changes that are deeper and more extensive. Like, isn’t it time we did away with the voting document and the way it is delivered? Should we stick to a system created at a time when, during working hours, a policeman making a delivery could reasonably expect to find someone home? Should we continue to use the police to deliver physical documents when so much important official correspondence has moved online? Should we continue using a document attesting to your right to vote whose only security feature is a paper hallmark and lamination when we now have identity cards with chips containing biometric data and which are considered adequate for all our other encounters with officialdom?

Before it introduced the bill establishing the gender balance mechanism in electing MPs, the government appointed a technical committee. Taking the same approach could be the way to make progress: appoint a group of people, knowledgeable about the electoral process in its intricate details and invite them to do some thinking outside the box. Whatever they come up with will finally help take the discussion from an abstract wish to practical proposals for action.

Franklin Mamo lives in Brussels. The views expressed here are entirely personal.

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