Tuesday, July 14, 2009


The problem of voter turnout at European elections is debated ad nauseam every 5 years. And every 5 years, we get the same, tired old arguments. The fundamental problem with this debate is that there is no agreement on what the problem really is. In other words, the problem is that defining the problem is problematic. This is important because we can't find solutions until we know what problem it is we are trying to solve.

Let's look at the candidates. The problem is:

1. The low level of turnout

2. The fact that turnout is falling

3. The causes of low turnout

1. The problem is the low level of turnout.

I don't really buy this. Lots of strong democracies around the world have low voter turnout at elections. Low turnout does not per se threaten democratic government. Some countries (Belgium is among them) take the view that voting is a duty as well as a right, and make voting obligatory, so turnout is always high. They are not stronger democracies for it. Indeed, there is intuitively someting to be said for the argument that high voter turnout is a negative reflection on how the voters feel they are being governed. Iran is a good example. Turnout has suddenly spiked - not because Iranian democracy is fundamentally healthier and stronger than it ever has been, but arguably for the exact opposite reason. In the French presidential election before the last one, turnout rose dramatically when it became clear that there was a risk that Jean-Marie Le Pen would be elected. Again, high turnout was associated with a problem, and not with enthusiasm for Jaques Chirac. I am not saying that high turnout is always to be seen in a negative context, but it is clearly simplistic to say that high is good and low is bad.

2. The problem is the fact that turnout is falling.

This makes more sense because there is meaning in the trend, but is not all that convincing either, because it boils down to a similar argument about low turnout being undesirable.

3. The problem is the causes of low turnout.

Ah, but what are those causes? I can think of four, or perhaps five, main lines of inquiry:

a) Are voters so satisfied with the way they are governed that they don't see the point in voting?

b) Are voters so dissatisfied with the way they are governed that they protest by not voting?

c) Are voters so ignorant of the importance of European elections that they don't see the point in voting?

d) Are voters, whether satisfied or dissatisfied or ignorant, so convinced that their vote will not make a difference that they don't see the point in voting?

e) Are voters so bored by European elections that they don't want to vote?

a) is an argument that doesn't get much in the way of media coverage, but is worth taking a look at. It does seem possible that in some countries, where support for EU membership is very high (especially new Member States), voters don't want much to change and therefore aren't motivated to vote. It must be remembered that voting is not a long-entrenched social habit in many of these countries, and that they have been through two generations of a political regime that did not encourage political activism. Voter turnout rose during the years of political strife that accompanied the fall of the system. Could it be that old Communist-era habits are returning, encouraged by the new-found comfort and stability of EU membership? I am not convinced by such arguments, because it seems to me that they boil down to d) rather than a). After all, you might just as well argue that people who are happy with the way they are governed would be expected to vote for the status quo.

b) is the argument that gets most attention in the media. Low turnout, we are constantly told, is a reflection of the poor regard in which the EU is held. As a protest against the EU, people don't vote, or vote anti-EU - hence the rise of the BNP, UKIP and Conservative vote in the UK, for example. But this argument, while intuitive, seems to me to be just as flawed as a). As shown by the Iranian and French examples, a serious crisis of government would result not in low turnout, but in a spike in turnout. People vote most when they want real change. Real change is not achieved by abstention. The political message sent by voter apathy is apt to be misunderstood and misinterpreted by politicians bent on achieving their political ends. Voters know this, and will send clear messages in times of crisis.

It is hard to deny the truth of c). Voters don't know much about the EU system. They don't understand what role the European Parliament plays in that system. This seems likely to be partly because of the complexity of that system, but partly also because of the failure of politicians and the media to explain the importance of the elections to voters. However, I am not left satisfied with this argument either. If voters voted more when they understood the system better, then why do they vote in U.S. presidential elections, with the ludicrous electoral college system? Why do they vote in Iran, with its unfathomably complex political system? In my mind, this argument is really powerful only when linked with d).

So d) also has an undeniable element of truth to it. Voters will be much more likely to vote if they believe that their vote can make a difference. This is the dynamic that drove the Chirac landslide vs Le Pen and drove Iranians to vote for change in their tens of millions. And totalitarian systems tend to produce apathetic voters, because there is no realistic prospect that the elections will change the system. But this argument is not sufficient by itself either. Firstly, the EU is clearly not a totalitarian system. Furher, why, then, did voters in Iran not vote in such great numbers in earlier elections? Indeed, does a vote for the president of Iran really make a big difference to the system? In France, why did voters not vote in the earlier round of the presidential election?

To me, e) is the most convincing argument. Voters will vote when there is something exciting going on - a change in government, an extremist to kick out of office, an exciting new Obama figure inspiring hope and promising a fresh approach. As shown by these examples, excitement is not always about supporting a popular incumbent or system. It can just as easily be a negative reaction. And excitement is not dependent on lots of information, or a realistic chance of change. Excitement is intangible and not scientifically measurable. It is emotional, human. And the failure to produce excitement lies not with the structural flaws of the EU system, or with the security that comes from EU membership, or voter ignorance. It lies with those whose functions are capable of producing excitement: politicians and the media.

In summary, if low voter turnout is a problem (and I think this is not as clear as it seems to be to many), then the cause is not one that can be easily identified. Commentators are always eager to explain the motivations of voters, but rarely take a systematic approach to analysing the problem or its causes. These will be different for different countries, and indeed, for different individuals. But I have not seen any press reports of low turnout in countries that nonetheless experienced a high degree of public excitement about the elections. Until we have politicians who can inspire us and media that are willing to break with the tradition of talking down European elections, we will doubtless continue to have low turnout, and more depressingly, the rather pointless and sterile debates that go along with it.

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