Fact-check Malta: Are votes for small parties ‘wasted’?

In the run-up to the European Parliament and local council elections held in Malta on 8 June, the leaders of the country’s two main political parties warned the public against voting for third-parties or independent candidates, saying that a vote for another party would be ‘wasted’.

In truth, this is a familiar refrain which crops up before every election, with the leaders of the Nationalist and Labour parties, the only two parties represented in Maltese parliament and at the European Parliament, trying to mobilise voters who may be on the fence.

In the days leading to the election, Labour Party leader (and Prime Minister) Robert Abela and PN (and opposition) leader Bernard Grech told the party faithful that any vote not for their party will be “wasted and lost”, in a bid to discourage votes to candidates standing for smaller parties or on their own steam.

These claims lean into a widespread misunderstanding of Malta’s voting system, the single transferable vote, leading some to believe that their vote will be invalidated if they vote for candidates across different parties.

What is Malta’s voting system?

Malta has been using the single transferable vote (STV) system for the best part of a century. Often touted as one of the most representative voting systems in the world, STV allows voters to directly vote for the representatives they want to elect across different parties.

In practice, voters in Malta vote for a candidate, not a party. Although it may seem counterintuitive, given Malta’s hyper-partisanship, the system is designed for voters to elect their preferred candidate, rather than to vote for a political party.

This is especially true of an MEP election, which aims to elect six individuals to the European Parliament, with one party’s victory over the other serving little tangible purpose, other than bragging rights.

How does the single transferable vote work?

At its core, the STV is very simple.

Each voter has a single vote that can be transferred as many times and across as many different parties or candidates as they like.

Voters rank their preferred candidates, giving their 1 to their first-choice candidate, their 2 to their second-choice and so forth.

A person can vote for a candidate from one party, give their second preference to a candidate from another party, their third to an independent candidate and keep going until they have voted for all the candidates they like. A voter can even vote for all 39 candidates on the ballot sheet, if they’d like to.

This vote makes its way across all the different candidates the voter has selected, until it eventually finds its way to someone who is eventually elected or until all the candidates the voter has chosen have been eliminated.

In this way, the system ensures that there are no wasted votes.

When a candidate reaches a certain number of votes (known as the quota) they are elected.

What is the quota and how is it calculated?

The quota is the number of votes needed for a candidate to get elected. Once the candidate reaches that number, they are guaranteed a seat.

The exact quota is calculated by counting the total number of valid votes cast and dividing it by the number of seats available, plus one seat and one vote.

So, with Malta electing six MEPs, the quota is the total number of valid votes cast divided by seven, plus one vote. In this month’s election, that worked out to 37,180 votes.

How are votes counted and transferred?

Votes are counted across different rounds. In the first round of counting, all first preference votes (that is, all 1 votes) are tallied up.

If nobody is elected on the first count (that is, no candidate reaches the quota), then the candidate who received the least number of first preference votes is eliminated from the race and their votes are transferred to other candidates, according to voters’ rankings.

This continues, with the bottom-ranked candidate eliminated each time, until the six seats are filled.

If, on the other hand, one or more candidates receive more first-count votes than the quota, their surplus votes move to other candidates in a second round of counting, according to the second preference listed by voters.

How are surplus votes transferred?

This is where things get a little more complicated.

The system uses a rather complex calculation to distribute surplus votes in a proportional way. Let’s take a real-life example to see how this would work.

Both PN MEP Roberta Metsola and Labour MEP Alex Agius Saliba received far more first-count votes than the quota, leaving them with a pool of surplus votes that needed to be transferred to other candidates.

Metsola received some 87,000 votes, 50,000 votes above the quota. In this case, the system examined all the 87,000 votes she received to determine who voters listed as their second preference.

If it found that a quarter of all Metsola’s voters listed another PN candidate as their second preference and a tenth choose an independent candidate as their second preference, then those ratios will be applied to her 50,000 surplus votes.

So, in practice, the other PN candidate will inherit 25% of her 50,000 surplus votes (12,500 votes) and the independent candidate will receive 10% of her votes (5,000 votes).

The same, of course, applied in Agius Saliba’s case.

When does my vote stop being transferred?

There are two situations where a person’s vote stops moving from one candidate to the next.

The first is when it finally reaches a candidate who it helps elect. So that vote would have helped get someone elected, even if it’s after several rounds of counting and the candidate isn’t listed as one of the top-ranked candidates on that particular vote.

The second is when all the preferences listed on the vote have been exhausted and there is nobody else that it can be transferred to. So, for instance, if a voter only lists three preferences and all three candidates are eliminated, then that vote’s journey ends there.

In practice, the more candidates a person votes for on their ballot sheet, the greater the chance of their vote counting towards someone’s election.


Malta uses a single transferable vote system, which asks candidates to rank their preferred candidates starting from their preferred candidate and moving on to their second preference, and so forth. Voters can vote for as many candidates, across as many parties, as they wish.

A person’s vote is transferred across these preferences as many times as necessary, until it reaches a candidate who is elected, or until there are no more preferences listed on the vote who are still in the running.

This system ensures that votes are, effectively, recycled repeatedly across different rounds of counting, each time helping a voter’s preferred candidates move closer to the quota needed to be elected. In practice, this means that no vote, whether it is for one of Malta’s two main parties or to a candidate from a smaller party or independent candidate, is wasted or lost.

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EU Elections, Fact Check, Politics

Author(s): Neville Borg

Originally published here.