04.06.2009 - 08.06.2009 13 °C
Last Thursday night I took my voter registration card to my local polling station, and cast my vote for my Member of European Parliament (MEP).
The European Union is a 27 state trans-national political and economic union, which includes a 736 member elected parliament representing close to 500 million residents. Every five years, the 340 million plus eligible voters get to pick representatives for the EU parliament. This is the second largest pool of voters picking a democratically elected body in the world, behind only Lok-Sabha, the democratically elected lower house in India.
The EU also says that the EU Parliament is the “largest trans-national democratic electorate in the world,” though I personally can’t think of any other trans-national democratic electorates, so it’s probably a bit like me saying I am the “most read blogger posting on gregwtravels.travellerspoint.com.”
Now, some of you may be wondering why I got to vote in the EU elections, given that I am a citizen of Canada and not a citizen of an EU country. A few of my European friends, especially the French ones, were wondering the same thing, especially seeing as citizens of an EU country other than the UK who are resident in the UK can’t vote in national elections, though they can vote in EU elections.
Here in the UK, Commonwealth citizens who are legally resident in the UK have the right to vote in any elections – local, national and international. I have never passed up an opportunity to vote before, so I wasn’t going to pass up my opportunity to elect an MEP for London, despite the consternation it caused among some of my European friends. It is quite a switch from the time I spent in the US, where over a 10 year period I got to watch from the sidelines as they ran through two presidential elections, a couple more mid-term elections, and the media circus that was the 2008 presidential primaries. Unlike the Americans, who never let me play in their election games, the Brits welcomed me right into their electorate pool.
Election posters for EU election in San Remo, Italy
Each country within the EU decides on its own method of voting, as along as it meets some basic criteria. Namely, that it is democratic and uses a “proportional representation” system of voting.
Proportional representation is the name for a system that allocates seats in the parliament based on the percentage of the vote received. The UK uses a method called the De Hondt method to allocate the seats. So in London, as an example, we get a total of 8 MEPs. When you vote, you vote for a party, not a person (as you would in the first past the post system that the USA, Canada and UK use for local and national elections).
The party that gets the most votes is awarded the first seat. Their vote total is then mathematically reduced, and the next seat is allocated to the new highest party (using the mathematically reduced total for the party with one seat). If you are interested in understanding the De Hondt method, you can check out the explanation at the end of the blog.
What is somewhat strange about the system versus a first-past-the-post system is that you aren’t voting for a person. When you go to vote in national and local elections, you have people who you are voting for, and so some of your decision is based on the experience and personality of the person you are voting for. In the EU election, I was voting purely on the policy of the party. Some may say that’s preferable to the “cult of personality” that exists in national politics, but I found myself wary of the concept. After all, what if the party I like best has on their list candidates that are very ineffective at the job of MEP? In that case, would I be better off voting for another party whose policies I don’t agree with as strongly, but who have a better list of candidates?
EU HQ in Brussels, Belgium
Some political commentators I’ve seen on TV recently have indicated that this lack of voting for an individual is one of the reasons for the low voter turnout for EU elections. The EU elections have pretty much consistently had lower turnout than local or national elections. The 2009 election had the lowest turnout of any EU election since they started voting for the EU Parliament in 1979, with a European Union wide turnout of around 43%. In London, only 34% of eligible Londoners voted.
The commentators argued that if people don’t know their MEPs, they don’t feel a connection with them and thus don’t bother voting. Prior to voting, I couldn’t name a single MEP for London. Now, I can name a couple if I have just looked at the results, but within a few minutes I have already forgotten the names. I’ve personally never met an MEP, and unlike the MPs, London Mayor or councillors, they don’t often show up in the local or national media. MPs and local councillors, on the other hand, are well known and people have a real, personal connection with these people.
Another issue that is blamed for low EU turnout is that most people don’t understand what the EU is responsible for and what impact it has on their lives. If your streets aren’t clean or the National Health Service (NHS) is in a mess, we know that our local or national government is to blame. The international, trans-border world of trade policies and international and regional development is a lot more nebulous and hard to see. As they say, all politics is local, and if you aren’t feeling, tasting or seeing the impacts of political decisions, you are less likely to care.
Finally, the EU Parliament, unlike a national parliamentary body, doesn’t have the power to initiate laws. Instead, it only debates, refines and votes on legislation submitted by the EU Executive branch. A lot of people don’t see the point in voting for EU representation when it’s the EU bureaucrats who are setting the agenda.
I’m glad I voted though, and I’ll keep on voting in EU elections as long as they allow me. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, it is cool knowing that my vote is getting mixed and mingled with someone’s vote from Slovenia. It makes me feel very international and worldly.
Secondly, it appears to piss off people I know from France, and upsetting the French is always fun.
Thirdly, I always vote, and don’t want to break the streak. I do feel like it is both my privilege and duty as a citizen (or, in this case, vote-eligible resident) of a democracy.
Finally, and most importantly though, one of the key reasons I chose to live in the UK is so I can get British citizenship, which in turn is so I can work in the EU without requiring visas. As such, it’s important to me to keep the Euro-cynics out of power so that if I get a UK passport, I’ll still be able to use it to snag a job in Berlin or Vienna.
Most Brits don’t vote because they don’t see how it impacts them. For me, given my goal of being able to work in the EU, I can clearly see the impact that the EU’s policies and the UK’s participation has in it, so it’s important to me.
As I’ve already said, all politics is local. In this case, the locality is my pocket, where I keep my passport.
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Appendix A: De Hondt Method Explained
In London, the top parties received the following vote totals:
- Conservatives 479,037
- Labour 372,590
- Liberal Democrats 240,156
- Green Party 190,589
- UK Independence Party 188,440
There are 8 seats to allocate. The first seat goes to the party with the highest total - the Conservatives. Their total is reduced by dividing the original number of votes they got by the number of seats they have plus one. So 479,037 / (1 + 1) = 239,519.
With the Conservatives adjusted total, the highest vote total is for the Labour with 372,590. They are given the second seat, and their total is reduced 372,590 / (1 + 1) = 186,295.
The table below shows the rounds.
Click here to see this image larger: larger image
Note that after the fourth seat is allocated to the Conservatives, their vote total is reduced again. This time, you divide the initial total (479,037) by the number of seats (2) plus 1. So 479,037 / (2 + 1) = 159,679.
In the end, London ended up with 3 Conservative, 2 Labour, 1 Liberal Democrat, 1 Green and 1 UKIP MEP seats. To assign actual people to these seats, each party had submitted a list of 8 potential MEPs. From the Conservative list, the top 3 names are chosen, from the Labour list the top two, and the top name from the Lib-Dem, Green and UKIP lists are chosen.
That’s how the De Hondt method is used to elect MEPs in the UK.