Political Participation and EU Citizenship: Influences, Voter Turnout & Voting Benefits

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  • 0:01 EU Political Participation
  • 0:41 Factors
  • 2:52 History In EU
  • 4:44 The Future
  • 5:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the factors that affect voter turnout and political participation in democratic governments and, specifically, the history of political participation in the EU.

EU Political Participation

Democracy is government by the will of the people. Theoretically, all the citizens of an area come together and elect a delegate to represent their interests and opinions on the regional or national level. Each person has one vote, so if everyone uses it, the will of the majority of the citizens should prevail. The problem, of course, is that not everyone uses their vote. For as long as democracy has existed, governments have had trouble with voter turnout and low political participation. This lesson will detail the factors that affect political participation, its history in the EU, and what political participation may be expected in the future.

Factors

When it comes to political participation, it's important to remember that each voter is unique. Because of this, it's hard to establish any concrete rules for high or low voter turnout; whether a citizen votes or not is often subject to myriad personal and environmental factors. However, we can see some general trends in voter turnout that can help us establish some rough, if imperfect, guidelines.

According to scholars, voter turnout is affected by the type of electoral process utilized in each state. Voter turnout is highest in countries that use proportional representation systems, meaning that the amount of vote a party receives directly correlates to the amount of seats they win in the legislature. Ireland is one example of a country that utilizes this system. Voter turnout is lowest in countries that use a plurality-majority system, specifically the 'first past the post' system, where voters vote for a candidate and each locality elects a candidate independent of the rest of the country. Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States are examples of countries that use this system.

Voter turnout is also affected by literacy rates. Though literacy certainly does not determine political literacy or competency, voter turnout has been shown to be higher in countries that have a higher population that can read and write. Another environmental factor is voter apathy and government accessibility. The less accessible the upper echelons of government feel to common citizens, the less impetus there will be on those citizens to vote.

Voter turnout also tends to be higher in countries where the political spectrum is more competitive. With more viable political parties comes more choice and a better likelihood that citizens will find a party that matches closely enough to their own political views that they will be motivated to vote. The vibrancy of the political climate in a country is also telling of the general enthusiasm for political participation.

Finally, voter turnout is greatly affected by national laws. For example, in Belgium, Luxembourg, and several other nations, voting is compulsory. When laws require people to vote, voter turnout is naturally vastly higher.

History in EU

Voter turnout for European elections has a checkered history. In the earliest manifestations of the European Parliament, delegates were not voted for, they were appointed by national governments. This changed in the 1970s, and the first direct elections for European Parliament occurred in 1979. Voter turnout for that election across the EU's 9 member states was 62%. Belgium, Luxembourg, and Italy - three nations where voting is compulsory - had voter turnouts of over 85%. Most other nations had voter turnout somewhere in the 60s; however, the United Kingdom skewed the results lower, with a paltry 32% of the population voting in the European elections.

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