One step forward, two steps back
The 2022 general election was supposed to herald a new era in terms of the counting process with the introduction of electronic counting. The overriding objective was to speed up the lengthy and laborious counting process of Malta’s single transferable vote system while beefing up controls.
In reality, the electronic system had already been tried and tested for the 2019 MEP and local council elections. At the time we had been told that any teething problems which could arise would be addressed in due course. Unfortunately, three years down the line the introduction of electronic counting system has left much to be desired.
Firstly, this time around it took longer to declare the winner even though the margin of victory was wider than in the last two elections, when the result was crystal clear after just 30 minutes. This delay was attributed to the fact that contrary to what used to happen in the past, ballots were not counted simultaneously from all boxes within a district, but each and every box after each other in sequential order. Hence, the sample of the first-count preference was not as reliable as it used to be with the result that in order to predict the winner and the expected margin of victory, there needed to be a much bigger number of votes counted. Hence, the process to reach an early verdict on the overall winner took longer.
Secondly, the counting process this time around seemed to have been shrouded under a veil of secrecy. For some reason it took more than 24 hours for the commission to publish any results at all. This meant that throughout the counting process nobody except party officials and the electoral commission, were aware of how each respective candidate was performing. This vacuum gave rise to constant speculation, rumours and occasional mistakes on who had been elected and who had missed out. Meanwhile, members of the media were left completely in the dark unless they could rely on their own party or commission sources. Even after all the names of elected candidates were known, the respective vote tallies were still being kept under wraps. It was only on late Monday morning, when the full results were published by the electoral commission. By the time of writing no explanation was given why the information divulged in such manner. Consequently, the introduction of the electronic counting system translated to much less transparency in the process itself, especially for those following at home. It was like a black box. This issue had already been flagged in the aftermath of the 2019 elections when the Commission had promised to look into the matter.
Three years down the line, the situation seems to have gotten worse. All we got throughout Sunday was information blackout on the entire counting process. It is akin to organising the football World Cup behind closed doors, only to announce the winner after the final. Though the publication of the overall result of all counts did not take as long as before, the overall experience left a bitter taste. In this respect it seems a case of one step forward and two steps back. Action needs to be taken by the Electoral Commission.