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Expats start online petition to ‘let us vote while abroad’

US citizens living abroad were able to take part in the presidential election through overseas voting. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

US citizens living abroad were able to take part in the presidential election through overseas voting. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

While many expats look forward to cheap flights to Malta offered to voters at every election, some are making the point that they would rather vote abroad.

An online petition (www.change.org/petitions/make-an-absentee-ballot-system-a-key-part-of-the-2013-election-campaign) has attracted only tens of signatures over the past two days but those behind it hope it will catch on.

“We are concerned that hundreds of Maltese nationals resident outside the island will not be able to vote in the general elections on March 9,” writes London-based Robert Zammit in the petition’s foreword.

“The demands of employment or graduate and postgraduate education make it difficult to leave the country of residence in order to vote.

“The financial and logistical burden of travel to Malta, even with subsidised flights, introduces an unfair obstruction to voting to those who cannot afford it.”

The petition suggests various options to change the current system: electronic voting, postal voting or voting at Maltese embassies.

Acknowledging that the election is only three months away, the petitioner says this should at least be a “key part” of the 2013 election campaign.

Mr Zammit told The Times he set up the petition following a discussion on Facebook.

“It’s a group effort, designed to raise awareness about a particular issue,” he said.

Asked whether he felt the changes should take place for the approaching election, he said he did not think it would be appropriate to guess what should come next.

“The only thing I would add is that making something a key part of the 2013 election campaign means, first and foremost, that we talk about it,” he said.

But what do the political parties have to say about it?

Alternattiva Demokratika is the only party in full agreement with the petition and said this could still be done before the next election.

“We have been saying this for quite some time and we hope that the matter will be resolved in time before the general election as this is technically possible,” chairman Michael Briguglio said, adding that the matter would be included in the green party’s electoral manifesto.

However, the Nationalist Party said: “Since absentee ballots require amendments to legislation this question is academic.”

Labour also pointed out that any change to the electoral system required an amendment to electoral laws, something that cannot be done now that Parliament is about to be dissolved.

“A new government will convene a Constitutional Convention to discuss all necessary constitutional reforms including updates to the electoral process,” a party spokesman added.

Why are people signing?

Anne Marie Magri, living in Ghana: “The current system is a waste of time and money. Surely it is time for all parties to realise this and allow those abroad and eligible to vote to exercise their right without unnecessary inconvenience.”

Oliver Licari, living in Glasgow: “Travelling with two young kids is a nightmare – plus the issues of pulling them out of school for a few days. Two parents will not be able to vote because of this outdated system.”

Thomas Camilleri, living in London: “For a country benefiting from millions of euro in EU funding it seems ignorant and wasteful to subsidise flights for thousands of expatriates when the proposed solution has been tried and tested by several larger countries for which it must be much more of a logistical task.”

Silvan Said, living in Bahrain: “The world is my oyster. Malta is where my roots lie.”

'Disenfranchisement may block movement'

The European Commission has promised to take steps to prevent EU citizens from losing their right to vote as a consequence of exercising their right to free movement.

Irish MEP Jim Higgins raised the issue in a parliamentary question last October, where he asked specifically about the situations in Ireland, Malta, Hungary, Cyprus, Demark and Austria.

In reply, European Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding pointed out that the EU had, in 2010, committed to launch a discussion to identify the various options.

“Disenfranchisement may constitute an obstacle to the effective exercise of this fundamental EU right,” the Commission had told member states in June 2011, she said.

Countries were invited to share their ideas on how to find a “reasonable solution” to this issue.

The Commission also launched a wide-reaching public consultation on EU citizenship, in which it also asked the opinion of respondents on disenfranchisement.

“Taking into account the results of this public consultation and the outcome of the dialogue with member states, the Commission will decide on further steps to be taken in this matter,” Ms Reding said.

Taxpayers pay €321 per voter

Taxpayers have to fork out €321 for each person flown to Malta to vote, according to statistics.

Malta has a unique tradition of offering subsidised flights to voters living abroad for elections and referenda.

The flights usually cost voters €35, leaving the other charges to the island’s coffers.

Bringing more than 3,057 people to vote in the 2008 general election had cost the taxpayer over €1 million and €442,000 was spent to fly 1,377 people to Malta during the European Parliament election in 2009.

The money goes into scheduling extra flights, passenger tax, servicing costs and paying the difference to have the Air Malta fares reduced.

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