For the first time ever, voter turnout has gone up in European elections. More than half of all eligible voters cast their ballots in May 2019, the highest proportion since 1994. Which is great news, as we’re sure everyone would agree. But what about the half who didn’t vote? What do they think? Was it principled political abstention? Were they too busy to vote? Too confused by all the options? Or just lazy?
Turnout in the first European Parliament elections in 1979 was over 60% (for comparison, that’s roughly the same proportion as turned out to vote in the most recent UK General Election). Until this year, however, the trend has been sloping downwards. So, how might things have looked if voter participation had been closer to 90%, as it is in Belgium – the country with the oldest system of compulsory voting in the world?
Voter turnout in individual EU Member States varies wildly. Belgium and Luxembourg almost always top the list with voter participation greater than 80%. However, these outliers are easy to explain, in both these countries voting is compulsory and people who don’t cast their ballot risk being fined. The argument in favour of extending compulsory voting to other countries is that if too few people vote then it weakens democracy, allowing dedicated (and more extreme) minorities to capture the political process.
Low voter turnout is particularly a challenge in Eastern Europe. Slovakia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic are all lagging behind, but many analysts argue this can’t just be brushed off as being about a lack of interest. In these countries there were elections under socialism, but they were not free. That experience has, arguably, left many people very sceptical about elections and the legitimacy they confer on elected representatives. Given that history, might compulsory voting feel like it’s intruding on civil rights? Shouldn’t it also be a person’s right not to vote?
Should voting be compulsory? Would it strengthen democracy? Or would it just trample over people’s rights? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!