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Our outdated voting laws

“America’s voting system is a disgrace,” scream­ed a CNN portal opinion piece last Wednesday, citing long queues and voter contestations in states like Florida. Yet millions of Americans around the world cast their vote via the traditional paper-based system or electronically. US citizens residing in Malta voted for their favoured candidate weeks ago.

The presidential winner of a country of 311 million people was officially known barely hours after the polls closed last Tuesday. Both candidates continued campaigning until the very last minute.

The US likes to think itself as having the world’s most effective democracy. It doesn’t, but if its electoral system is flawed, then Malta’s must be stuck in the beginning of the 20th century.

With a population of 420,000, Malta is the smallest EU state. Elections have morphed into a five-yearly marathon with no sign of change. Its nationals can only vote via the antiquated paper-based system in closely-guarded polling stations with security procedures more akin to a communist state.

Each Maltese citizen, whether healthy or not on election day, has to go to the polling booth. Thankfully, a recent Bill will permit voting to take place in hospitals and homes for the elderly.

Maltese living overseas look forward to benefitting from give-away air ticket prices to show up on election day rather than being given the chance to vote electronically (or in paper format, days in advance).

Campaigning has to stop more than 24 hours before polling day. The media are forced to pretend there is no electoral contest in the critical last hours, silenced by an outdated law which forgets the fact that most citizens are logged into the internet.

The winner will only be known via political party agents inputting voting preferences behind counting hall perspex. The official result is not normally announced before the next day.

Our laws would be amusing were it not for the fact that we take electioneering so seriously.

And the charade continues. The Nationalist Party last week lashed out at the Labour Party for filing almost 200 court applications this year to strike people off the electoral register, most of whom are Maltese residing abroad. Labour responded by saying it was prepared to discuss a change in legislation but said it was not ready to ignore the Constitution which states that a person can only vote if he has lived in Malta for at least six of the past 18 months. It is an archaic law since it seems to forget that eight years ago Malta joined the EU where freedom of movement of its nationals is one its fundamentals.

It was refreshing to hear Justice Minister Chris Said saying the Government is prepared to engage in immediate talks to change this law, while Labour reacted with a ludicrous claim that discussions can only take place after a nationwide ID card renewal process is completed.

Sadly, it is only the political parties that can hammer out the necessary electoral law changes – and they are clearly solely driven by their own partisan interests, not the country’s, nor the citizens they claim to fight for.

The political parties would do well to introduce an element of trust in their citizens’ goodwill for starters – and that is giving every Maltese citizen the right to vote in comfort, whether he’s incapacitated at home or living abroad.

We are a few months away from the next election. There is still time to bring electoral laws into the 21st century. But no one is holding their breath.

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