Vote or Abstain? Part 2 – Engaging the European Electorate

In yesterday’s post I looked at some reasons that might explain why, over time, the proportion of the European electorate participating in EP elections has steadily declined. The trend that underscores this process is shown clearly below; growth in the size of the electorate has consistently outstripped growth in the number of voters, somewhat driven by population growth but primarily by EU enlargement.

Votes and size of EU electorate

Despite this, it is clear from the chart that the number of votes cast in EP elections has risen over time, almost doubling to 164 million between 1979 and 2009. Headline turnout figures may obscure this fact slightly, as they may appear to indicate lower participation when it is actually a lower rate of participation; a key difference. While their reasons may not apply to everyone, many Europeans clearly still see cause to vote in EP elections. So where Part I of this post considered reasons for abstention, it is also important to consider the other side of the coin; why do people vote?

A key step towards answering this question may be taken by looking at the differences in turnout between national and EP elections, as EU members have consistently registered higher turnout for the former relative to the latter. These ‘turnout gaps’ reveal a broad propensity to favour voting in national elections over EP elections. Given the costs involved with voting, for example time spent researching candidates and forgoing other activities to vote, we can take this as a sign that voters typically attach greater value to participation in national elections. But where does this different value derive from?

Top 10 average turnout gaps
(Click to see larger image)

New evidence, using the European Election study 2009 data, indicates that it may come from differences in the electorate’s perception of policy impacts. Each point on the chart below represents the proportion within each EU member state that believes in the positive impact of either domestic or EU policy, plotted against the corresponding turnout in either national or EP elections. This has been done for four different areas of policy including economic policy, immigration policy, health policy and interest rate policy. The chart is separated into four quadrants divided by lines showing the median for both policy impact and turnout.

It seems intuitive that people are more likely to make the effort to vote if they believe that they personally have something to gain from it; a point that is well represented by this data. The majority of the areas of EU policy fall in the lower left quadrant, meaning people have less faith in their positive impact which corresponds with lower turnout. In the case of domestic policies, higher turnout appears to be related to a greater belief in the efficacy of these policies. In short, people are more likely to vote at the national level because they believe domestic policy is more likely to positively impact their lives.

EP and National election turnout

In terms of UK citizens’ perceptions, the distinction between national and EU policies and the relationship with turnout appear even clearer, and this strong link may help explain why the UK has seen consistently below-average EP election turnout. The chart below shows the same relationship as above but at the UK level, with the data this time disaggregated by age group. Again, the blue dots in the upper right quadrant indicate the high impact-high turnout relationship between domestic policy and national elections, with the opposite being true of EP elections. Note that the chart implies an additional relationship between turnout and age, explored in a standard note on EP election turnout.

EP and National election turnout impact on UK

Changes in perceptions since the last EP election are likely to have an impact on turnout, although in which direction remains to be seen. It could be the case that the economic difficulties of the last few years within the Eurozone have brought home the importance of the EP and its EU-wide legislative powers. Alternatively, dissatisfaction with the response to the crisis may work in the other direction and apply downward pressure to turnout levels. What seems clear, however, is that voter participation requires a perceived connection between voters and EU policy – and the strength of this connection will be revealed this week, not by who voters vote for, but simply by how many of them head to the polls.

Author: Steven Ayres