Where Europe voted and where it didn’t

Two different ways to visualize voter turnout data

Hi everyone! Here’s Simon, I’m standing in for Lisa this week while she’s away.

When it comes to voting for the European Parliament, Europeans are notorious for staying away from the ballot. In last week’s EU election, however, a whopping total of 50.5% of EU constituents cast their vote. While this may not sound like much, and is in fact still lower than the common turnout for most national elections across Europe, it is the highest EU election turnout in 20 years.

When we take a closer look at the voter turnout in the 28 individual EU countries, the picture is not that bright. The range goes from 88% in Belgium to a mere 23% in Slovakia. To visualise this spectrum, I made the above choropleth map. It is based on a map that my coworker Lisa published in 2017 to visualise the turnout of national elections in Europe.

What’s up Europe

There are many reasons for the stark differences in voter turnout. On one side, pro-Europeans and climate change protesters as well as eurosceptics and nationalists have mobilized voters across the political spectrum. On the other side, Europe has had serious issues with political apathy for years, and many EU citizens feel that their vote in the European Elections has no real consequences. And this isn’t just anecdotal: it’s officially confirmed by the EU’s very own post-election surveys.

Then there are the many different electoral systems. EU member states run their own elections, using their own methods and regulations. In Malta and Austria, for example, the voting age for the 2019 European election was 16, while in all other member states you had to be 18 to vote. Another aspect of electoral systems that has a particular impact on voter turnout is compulsory voting. Several member states have, or have had, laws that make it mandatory for eligible voters to actually go to the polls, or risk to be fined. In the 2019 election, voting was compulsory in Belgium and Luxemburg. Other countries had such rules in past European elections, but have since abolished compulsory voting or don’t actively enforce it.

Chart choices

Looking at it again, the map above may not be the perfect way to present the given data. As Lisa pointed out in her original article, choropleth maps are a bit dull because they can only show one value per geographic region. They are also imprecise because it can be hard for humans to distinguish different shades of colours. On top of that, choropleth maps can be misleading because they give prominence to countries with larger land area. On the map above for example, Finland is more visually prominent than Belgium, even though Belgium has a much larger population and a higher voter turnout. And a tiny country like Malta is hardly visible (try to find the small dot in the sea south of Italy).

I decided to give it a second shot and applied a different approach to the same data. Using a mix of bar charts and spark lines in a table, I was able to not only show the turnout in the most recent election but also the development of voter turnout over time. And, as the table is sortable and searchable, users have additional tools at their disposal to browse through data, which is particularly handy on small screens. The table even allows to show some extra context about compulsory voting. The downside of not presenting the data on a map is the lack of geographic information. To give at least some visual guidance, I added tiny flags to the country names.

If you’d like to learn more about the techniques I used here, have a look at the following articles.

As always, do let us know if you have feedback, suggestions or questions. I am looking forward to hearing from you at [email protected].

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