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The vote as a message

Many people are wondering how to vote on Saturday. They are clear in their mind about which MEP candidates they prefer. But they would also like their vote to be an additional message, an unambiguous statement of their disillusionment with the current state of Maltese politics and the leadership in both main political parties.

In normal circumstances, the vote endorsing a particular set of candidates doubles up as a message endorsing the Party’s leader. In these disenchanted times, that’s precisely the message that many voters do not want to give. Is there a way of voting that endorses a candidate you respect while sending a message of disenchantment with his or her leader?

In other words, is there a way of gaming the system? This is the context in which some people are considering giving their ‘number 1’ vote to someone they’d consider absurd – say, one of the more eccentric independent candidates – and then immediately moving on to giving their second, third and other preferences to candidates they’d like elected. Or, to take another possibility, voting for only one or two candidates and stopping there.

Gaming the system, however, leads to results that no single voter can control. If everyone votes for the loony candidate, he has a chance of being elected.

If one or more of your three candidates is not elected, your vote stops dead in its tracks. You’ve opened the door for the election of other candidates. If you’re neutral between all remaining candidates, that’s fine. But if you have strong preferences between them, then you’ve denied yourself the chance of expressing that preference.

Gaming the system is tricky because you cannot determine the result. Your intentions are one thing. The result is another.

What about the message you’d like to send? Once more it’s complicated.

First, you might want to send a message to one person or quarter only. But there are many different entities readying themselves for your message. There are of course the Labour and the Nationalist Party. But there are also the smaller parties trying to assess if their work is being appreciated.

There is also the European Parliament itself, which has expressed itself several times on issues you are likely to care about (once you find yourself wondering how to use your vote to send a message). It, too, will be interpreting the vote and drawing the conclusions – from the overall result – concerning Maltese society’s preferences concerning such hot-button issues as rule of law.

For the same reason, there are also international NGOs, like PEN and Reporters Without Borders. And of course, there are MEP candidates themselves. They too will be drawing conclusions about what kind of behaviour is rewarded.

In short, with such a varied audience, your vote is unlikely to send only one message, even assuming the one you want to send gets through to the quarter you’re addressing. Your message is, so to speak, an open letter, and it’s likely to be interpreted from a variety of angles, with results that you never intended.

Next, there are already a number of ready-made interpretations waiting to be slapped onto your vote, in order to help different audiences to ‘interpret’ what you choose.

Muscat has declared the vote a choice between Delia and himself. That blurs matters for people who’d like the vote to be a referendum only on Delia. Meanwhile, Delia himself has declared the vote a referendum on abortion. For others, it will be a test of the national popularity of a likely future Labour leadership contender, Miriam Dalli. For the minor parties, a test of whether it’s worth continuing the struggle.

These intepretations will not be given to your vote on the basis of logic but on the basis of the strength of the spinning machines and what the commentariat decides. Moreover, they will not be assessing your vote but the totality of the vote. Once more, how your vote is interpreted will be determined by how your fellow voters behaved as well.

The conclusion is clear. If your message is different from which candidates you really prefer, there is a strong chance it will not make it to its final destination. It will be picked up by someone else and garbled.

If you’re really keen on sending a strong unambiguous message, do not use the ambigious indirect means of a vote. Address your MP or MEP. Write to the press. Organise an online declaration for like-minded people to sign.

In the current circumstances, you are not morally responsible for the interpretation of your vote since that depends on others. You are, however, responsible for whether you vote, who you vote for, and who you enable or impede.

A vote is there to show your preference among candidates: your preference in terms of who you like and your preference in terms of who you detest. Don’t use it to multi-task. It doesn’t end well.

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