Changing voter behaviour

There are numerous mental shortcuts we take as human beings. We call these biases and science documents a whole list of them. This article explains how any voter takes such shortcuts, how they affect elections in Malta, and how I would solve this situation.

Voter experience

A picture of a vote under the Single Transferable Vote regime

As I was at the counting hall during last year’s European election I noticed one curious pattern in the ballots. A fair number of them had the voting numbers listed in numerical order. It was clear voters wished to vote for their party so they gave their first preference to the first person on the list, the second to the next one, and so on. This was not something unique to any party either; voters from both major parties behaved this way.

This is odd because while the a voter’s intent is clear, the behaviour is contrary to what our elections are all about. In Maltese elections you vote for people, not for a party. These voters chose a party, not a specific person.

I’m not explaining anything new here.

Alphabetical advantage is something studied across the globe1. Indeed, a few candidates remarked on this during the election campaign too2.

But it is unfair, as well as being wrong.

Why should candidates get elected because their surnames are further up the list?3

Electing the wrong people

I’m hardly the right person to flag this problem. My surname starts with the letter ‘B’ which gives me this unfair advantage too.

And yet it offends my sense of decency.

If I get enough 1st preference votes, I’m elected. If your surname starts with a ‘M’ you’d get more 2nd preference votes and may not get elected.

How is that fair?

What if you’re better than I am?

For this reason, I’ve spent some time thinking about how to solve this.

Wouldn’t it be better to have a fairer system?

Voter-centric ballots

  • The first and most obvious choice would be to have some, but not all, ballots printed in a different order. The piece of paper I get on Election Day may contain the names in reverse alphabetical order, or in a random fashion. Yours would be in the proper order. As a voter my bias doesn’t ruin things.
    Pro: This neutralises the alphabetical advantage.
    Con: Votes get spread across more candidates, making it harder to elect people.

  • My second choice would be to stop grouping candidates by political party. If all the people are on the ballot together you force any voter to pay attention to what they’re doing. Some candidates will change their name to Mr/Ms Aardvark to still get this advantage.
    Pro: Will lead to better elections.
    Con: This may be as confusing as it is useful.

  • My third choice would be to stop the dichotomy we have in Maltese politics between party and candidates. We already know politics is tribal in Malta so why not accept that? Change the ballot so that we vote for a party, not for a candidate.
    Pro: It reflects the way we think as an electorate.
    Con: It reflects the way we think as an electorate.

Conclusion

Photo by Element5 Digital on Pexels.com

I prefer the 3rd choice because it simplifies things.

  1. It gives the ability to reduce the bloat in parliament by having fewer MPs.
  2. It gives Malta the ability to consider a technocratic government which means ministers will no longer need to court votes.
  3. It means political parties will only have to push and advertise their leader, thereby reducing their electoral, and running, costs.

I’m not sure the current system will ever change. Any government that tries to improve the electoral system would have to accept one key fact: It’s own election was faulty.

Who would be (wo)man enough to do that?

References

  1. No such thing as a fish; Episode 254
  2. Ivvota minn fuq għal isfel… ; Peter Agius’ Facebook page; 2019-05-22
  3. Labour MEP Candidate Takes His New Wife’s Surname, Confirms Change Will Help Him Electorally; Tim Diacono; Lovin’ Malta; 2018-10-23

All references were valid and correct when this article was published. Changes to referenced websites or web pages may render some references invalid. If this is the case, please leave a comment below.

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