Low Turnout: Apathy or Protest?

The post-independence political scene in Malta has always shown that an extremely high percentage of the population is interested in their leadership and is willing to go out and vote. This is evident by the continued high voter turnout that the country has experienced, with only the first independent election in 1966 having a voter turnout below 90%.

However, in last week’s election, the electoral commission published the first-ever major dip in voter turnout in any general election, with the percentage going from 92.1% in 2017 to 85.5% in 2022.

Voter turnout in Maltese General Elections – Source: Electoral Commission/Times of Malta

Voter turnout was last this low in 1955, at 81.16%, a decade before independence was achieved and parliament was truly in our hands.

By any western democratic standards, 85.5% is still an extremely good percentage and an indication that the democratic process is healthy, especially in a country that does not have any compulsory voting mechanisms, meaning that citizens are free to decide whether they wish to vote or not.

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By comparison, Italy’s 2018 general elections showed 72.93% of eligible voters going out to vote, while other major countries such as the United Kingdom, France and the United States have even lower statistics, sitting at 67.3%, 55.25% and 62.0% respectively.

But this does not mean that a sharp decline like the one experienced in this election can be ignored. Around 50,000 registered voters, well aware of the election, decided that they should not cast their vote for any, or none, of the parties.

So, what happened? Is this simply a gradual increase of apathetic voters who are no longer interested in paying attention to the country’s petty politics, do people no longer feel that they are represented by any candidate or party, or is it a continuation of a global trend that threatens the sanctity of the democratic process?

This election was the first time 16 and 17-year-olds were included as registered voters, thanks to the ‘Vot 16’ legislation introduced in 2018. This, therefore, included roughly 8,500 votes to the eligible population and gave more voting leverage to the youth.

A few days before the election, polls already had begun to predict a record low number of voters, with the most accurate Times of Malta polls indicating 88% of voters will be participating in the election, a number that ended up being a best-case scenario. That figure included 3.8% of Labour voters and 2.7% of PN voters who said that they would not be voting.

The problem with all these numbers is the inability to distinguish between those who have become apathetic and simply do not care, or who have become apathetic because they view both the major parties as unfitting to lead the country while seeing the third parties as a “wasted vote”, those who think that no party or candidate is fitting to represent their views or worth voting to, and the voters who “weren’t served” by their party of choice but will not change sides.

With so many potential reasons why it is difficult for politicians to picture how they should change to get these people to vote for them in the next election. While a wide range of issues plague our country, from the environment to corruption at the highest offices, it is difficult for them to work towards ensuring that the voter turnout does not continue to decrease and to try to get these people to give them their vote in the next election.

The Nationalist Party attempted to win people who don’t normally vote over by publishing stories on Bernard Grech and other PN candidates’ personal lives and trying to show them off as any other normal person trying their best to do the right changes in Malta, while Prime Minister Robert Abela attempted to address those who had grievances with his party earlier in March and promised that solutions will be found if they go out and vote. Unfortunately, this all seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

The problem with those who do genuinely care about politics but have issues with the party choices and the government and are therefore unable to vote for any of them, is that they are indistinguishable from those who are apathetic to the whole situation. This raises an issue as politicians would be unable to determine whether the people they claim to represent simply don’t care or have issues that are not being represented in elections, issues that could be represented in the future if these non-voters could speak out.

This results in the candidates taking the easy way out, claiming that the 50,000 people who did not vote are simply uninterested in politics and continue the way they always have.

What cannot be ignored though, are those who invalidate their own vote.

This can be done by spoiling the ballot sheet, doodling on the ballot or writing anything other than clearly visible numbers within the boxes.

Although some of them are obviously errors made by the voters, a good percentage of them are from those who are entirely willing to go out and vote but refuse to vote for any of the candidates or parties in their district’s list.

A number of these ballot sheets went viral last week, with some writing “F*ck off”, and others decorating the sheets with some admittedly well-drawn sketches.

The number of total invalid votes in this election was also a record, standing at 8802, double the numbers previously seen in any election.

These spoilt votes cannot be written off. These are people who have gone out, participated in the election, and refused to vote for anyone. They are a strong indication of a rise in people who are not content with the current situation but are still invested enough to show that they would be willing to vote if a suitable candidate was provided.

This still raises the issue as to why they refused to vote, with the majority of the list of possible reasons still being relevant to these 8802 voters.

But at least we know that they cannot just be assumed as disinterested or indifferent to politics, but that they have issues that no party is willing to help solve.

So, in the next election, whether it is the local council election, the MEP election, the general election, or even a referendum, if you believe that you cannot vote for a single candidate, don’t just stay at home. Grab your voting document, go to the polling place, and spoil the ballot sheet. Show that you wish to vote, that you are willing and able to participate in this democratic process and be free to write or draw anything electoral commissioners, party activists and canvassers would have to look at to verify that the vote was invalid.



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