Voting at shopping centres ‘saved’ election turnout

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As the dust settles on the European Parliament elections, EU officials and experts do not seem to be overly concerned by the low turnout, instead stressing the lessons learned from positive experiences like allowing people to vote in railway stations and shopping centres, and over the Internet.

Meanwhile, leading MEPs have pledged to make pan-European lists a reality for the next elections, and vowed to work more closely with national parliaments to revert the downward turnout trend. 

The overall turnout of roughly 43% of the 375 million eligible voters represents an historical low and reiterates the growing apathy and lack of interest in EU affairs among Europe’s citizens. Yet, the fall from the 45.6% of 2004 is not as bad as many had feared on the eve of the elections and averted the crisis anticipated by repeated opinion polls, which had painted a much bleaker picture. 

Despite being regrettably low, turnout did not fall disastrously but was instead flat, said Simon Hix, a professor at the London School of Economics and father of the Predict09 tool. Voter turnout decreased in many countries, but increased in Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Sweden, Poland, Lithuania and Bulgaria. 

The fact that a number of countries decided to combine the European Parliament elections with other local or administrative votes contributed to bringing more people to the polls (EURACTIV 3/06/09

Removing barriers for voters 

But what really boosted numbers were the structural changes made in some countries to lower the cost of casting a ballot, like allowing postal, Internet and pre-voting, or even just improving the opening hours of polling booths, noted Professor Claes de Vreese, chair of political communications at the University of Amsterdam. 

According to de Vreese, allowing people to vote around the clock on the Internet or running an election in April rather than in June, when the weather gets better, are all factors that could influence future turnout. 

Sweden, for example, allowed people to vote in advance. Five days ahead of the real election day, 12% of the electorate had already cast their ballot. 

Voting also took place everywhere from libraries and shopping malls to old people’s homes and parish halls. As a result, Sweden’s turnout increased from 37.8% in 2004 to 43.9% this time around. 

Estonia, one of the EU’s smallest member states with a population of 1.4 million, held the first i-voting (Internet voting) of the EU elections. 

By doing so, experts say its voter turnout increased from 26.8%, one of the lowest in the 2004 elections, to 43.9% last week. “We keep doing the same things over and over again, without knowing why we are doing it,” added de Vreese. “But if we know that there are structural barriers, why keep them, I ask?,” he continued, advocating a complete “out of the box” rethink of the way European elections are held, drawing lessons from positive examples. 

Institutional campaign not enough 

Despite launching European manifestoes ahead of the elections, political parties did not manage to engage their national affiliates in running a European campaign and failed to explain the relevance of the elections to voters, analysts said. 

Julian Priestly, former secretary-general of the European Parliament told a European Policy Centre event that parties had “hardly campaigned at all,” and rarely did so on the main issues at stake. Until this changes, turnout will not increase, he added. 

According to de Vreese, the European institutions have an obligation to run awareness campaigns, but it is up to the political parties to explain what is at stake in the election so that voters have something to choose from. “If you have a poor campaign, then people are not going to vote,” he said.

Despite the fact that Parliament started its own Twitter feed and put short videos on YouTube, too few MEPs or candidates jumped on the social media bandwagon, the analyst suggested. Indeed, MEPs trail behind their American counterparts in this regard. Of the 535 members of Congress, 116 already use Twitter (22%). On this side of the Atlantic, only 27 MEPs use the service: just 3.5% of the 785 members of the European Parliament (EURACTIV 20/05/09)

More media coverage, but online 

Traditionally, European elections have been given relatively low priority in the news. They rarely make the opening of the news programmes, and coverage is largely domestic in nature. 

This time around, it seemed that many news organisations had intensified their coverage of the elections, noted de Vreese, but primarily in their online editions. 

Public broadcasters like the BBC have a responsibility to inform the electorate about the issues during the run-up to the elections, but the media needs clear messages and personalities – otherwise it is difficult to explain to voters what is at stake, or for editors in national capitals to understand the issues, said Shirin Wheeler, European correspondent at BBC World. 

De Vreese agrees that many parties failed to really engage citizens online, except for Sweden’s Pirate Party (EURACTIV 22/04/09), the only one in his view to have succeeded in running a fully-fledged online campaign. All the other parties did not manage to take full advantage of social networking tools in their campaigns, he added (EURACTIV 17/09/08).  

On election night, commenting on the results, ALDE leader Graham Watson proposed to give Euronews public service broadcaster status in all 27 member states “so that people will get regular information about what is going on in Brussels”. 

The idea was immediately opposed by experts, who believe that such a move would be dubbed as propaganda. “That assumes that Euronews is a key factor in influencing general opinion on the EU,” commented de Vreese. “I don’t think that is the case. The EU in its entirety has to fight its way into regular coverage rather than produce a separate channel than in the eyes of some could be seen as propaganda,” he concluded. 

Pan-European lists and national parliaments 

Meanwhile, Watson also disclosed his plans for overcoming low turnout and the general lack of interest in European affairs, should he be elected as European Parliament president. 

He suggested that a percentage of MEPs could be elected on pan-European lists, so that pan-European campaigns would start replacing the 27 national campaigns. He also called for commissioners to be chosen from the ranks of the European Parliament, so that in his words, every commissioner would have a directly-elected mandate, allowing people to see the impact of their vote on the new European Commission. 

The Greens were the first European party to hold pan-European campaign and have pan-European lists. Their gains in these elections might indicate the success of their approach, experts said, noting that lists featuring candidates of different nationalities could trigger citizens’ interest. 

While successive EU enlargements have increased the number of sitting MEPs and the European Parliament's powers have increased substantially with each change to the EU treaties, voter turnout in European elections has been in constant decline. The previous low was reached in 2004, when turnout was a feeble 45.6% and many ruling parties suffered substantial losses. 

Various reasons have been suggested for this decline, and a number of solutions have been proposed to reverse it (see EURACTIV LinksDossier). 

Firstly, European elections are still fought mainly on national issues. Most academics – and more crucially, politicians themselves - actually consider them to be "second-order national elections". 

Secondly, there is a widespread perception among voters that their voice does not make a huge difference. Many do not feel any incentive to go to the polls because they do not see direct the consequences of their actions in terms of power-sharing at EU level. 

Meanwhile, the lack of interest in European elections makes it difficult for media professionals to "sell their stories" to editors, particularly to national media and television. 

Despite a persistence of these trends in this month's elections, experts noted that new methods had positively impacted upon voter turnout, namely technological advances and structural decisions on where and when to vote. 

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