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Turnout in the European Parliament election: Why do so many people abstain?

Hermann Schmitt

Evidence from British Election Study Internet Panel Wave One conducted in Feb/March 2014

There is a bit of a clash between different explanations of the particularly low level of participation in European Parliament elections. Some say it’s all due to Euro-Scepticism: those who are critical about the EU and the current direction of EU politics stay home and express their opposition that way. Others say it’s all to do with mobilisation: because party compe­tition and electoral mobilisation is so modest at the occasion of European Parliament elections, participation is low. And a third camp has gained some prominence saying that it’s all about representation: the availability – or the lack of it – of agreeable choice options. Where none of the competing parties is expressing citizens’ opinion about Europe con­vin­cingly, people simply have no choice but to abstain from voting.

The following is based on the intentions of British Election Study Internet Panel respondents to turn out expressed some three months ahead of the event. According to the first perspective, variations in those intentions should be associated with critical views about Europe: Euro-Sceptics should be prominent among likely abstainers. The second perspective would find support if party attachment does not strongly determine the intention to participate in these elections – the closer citizens are to one of the parties, the more likely should they be found to turn out.  The third explanation would be endorsed if the distance on the issue of Europe between respondents and one of the competing parties would significantly predict turnout: the smaller they perceive this distance to be, the more likely they are to participate.


table EP turnout


Testing these expectations against the British Election Study Internet Panel Wave One findings in a series of linear regressions, a baseline factor is found to be the most powerful predictor of respondents’ intention to participate: their attention to politics more generally. It is almost trivial: people interested in political affairs are more likely to participate in the forthcoming EP election than others. Partisan mobilisation (here indicated by party attachment) is much weaker and comes second. This effect might gain prominence, however, as we get closer to the election and the parties gear up their campaigns. The availability of a suitable choice option in the forthcoming election (that is: the perception of being represented) is weakly related to intentions to participate among all respondents, and among potential voters of both Labour and UKIP. Last but not least, Euro-Scepticism as such does not play a role among all respondents, and shows weak but opposite effects among potential Labour voters on the one hand (Europhiles somewhat more likely to turnout), and among potential voters of the Conservatives and UKIP on the other (Euro-Sceptics somewhat more likely to turn out).


Image credit to European Union under European Parliament Attribution-Non Commercial-NoDerivs Creative Commons License.