Tackling turnout: Amid record abstention in France, a look at how Europe gets out the vote

·7-min read

The first round of voting in France's regional elections last Sunday was marred by record low turnout, spurring some politicians to call for implementing new ways to vote in the country. FRANCE 24 takes a look at how other European countries have managed – from making voting easier to making it mandatory. Would modernising French elections with mail-in or online voting tick all the right boxes and boost turnout? Or does the trouble lie elsewhere?

Abstention hit a new high-water mark during Sunday's vote in France, stretching back to the dawn of the Fifth Republic in 1958. Official figures showed a full two-thirds of voters stayed away from the ballot box in the first round of simultaneous regional and departmental elections – with 66.72 and 66.68 percent, respectively, abstaining. In some cities, the abstention tally was even higher. In Roubaix, a city of 100,000 near Lille, 84 percent of registered voters didn't turn up on election day.

With voters staying away en masse, France laid waste to the previous record for the first round of a regional vote, 53.67 percent in 2010. After the polls closed, French politicians rattled off a catalogue of excuses: the campaign upended by Covid-19, logistical problems affecting the postal distribution of official campaign literature, criticism of the government's choice of dates for the ballots, and the list goes on.

Elsewhere in Europe, holding elections during this pandemic has also presented considerable challenges. And yet aside from Portugal, which recorded a sharp decline in turnout during its presidential vote with less than 40 percent casting a ballot, other countries have managed to keep the damage to a minimum.

In the Netherlands, turnout even topped 80 percent in March legislative elections. Apart from spreading the voting out over three days, allowing citizens over the age of 70 to cast their ballots remotely likely encouraged participation.

Germany, distance voting since 1957

Germans were also called to the polls earlier this month in the state of Saxony-Anhalt. Turnout topped 60 percent in that June 6th election, although it bears noting that states (or Bundesländer) carry a significance for Germans not directly comparable with that of the regions in neighbouring France.

Mail-in voting is solidly established in Germany, dating back to 1957. Electoral fraud is rare and minor in the country, political scientist and economist Ernst Stetter told FRANCE 24. "Mail-in voting is not being reconsidered at all in Germany, quite the contrary. With the health crisis and federal elections coming in September, a lot of voters will be thinking about it," said Stetter, who is special advisor to the president of the Jean-Jaurès Foundation for Europe.

Distance voting was abolished in France in 1975, although the idea of resurrecting it comes up regularly in France. Still, many French politicians oppose the notion, in the interest they say of upholding the secrecy of the ballot. In a November 2020 op-ed posted to social media, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin wrote that "only the polling booth... had afforded the guarantee that voters are citizens free and equal before the law, free to keep their vote secret."

Despite such reservations, could German-style mail-in voting provide a much-needed boost to citizen participation in France? That's not so sure, said Stetter. "Mail-in voting is a commodity and can be applied everywhere, but that won't solve the abstention problem. The problem is at another level. It's a problem of leadership, of the political options on offer and of voter perception with regard to the democratic system," he said.

Estonia, the e-voting champ

Internet voting is another option on the table in France. The prospect of allowing voters to cast their ballots online gained fresh attention in France during pandemic-perturbed 2020 municipal elections. Controversially, even as Covid-19 infections spiked, the first round of that vote last year was maintained as scheduled on March 15 – just two days before President Emmanuel Macron locked France down for the first time to stem the spread. The second round had to be postponed until June 28.

>> Flashback: Low voter turnout in French local elections tells a tale of disillusionment

Elected officials from Macron's party have called for exploring online voting as an option before the 2022 presidential elections, to be held next April and May and closely followed by nationwide legislative elections. On the presidential campaign trail in 2017, Macron proposed the idea of an "electronic vote which would broaden turnout, reduce election costs and modernise the image of politics".

Resistance to internet voting is rife, however, particularly in the current context of burgeoning cyber attacks and fears of election interference by foreign powers.

By and large, European Union countries are reticent to the notion of voting online. Most experiments conducted in Europe over the past two decades have been cut short. In 2014, Norway suspended its use of digital voting after finding that some voters had cast a ballot twice. Since 2019, Switzerland no longer allows electronic voting.

Estonia is the exception in Europe. The country Barack Obama once deemed "a model for how citizens can interact with their government in the 21st century" is a pioneer in the domain of e-voting. The northernmost Baltic state – population 1.3 million – is the only EU member to propose internet voting for all of its elections alongside the option to vote in person.

From the dawn of this century, Estonia began building a regulatory framework and the robust and reliable digital identification system that made such progress possible. The government has also been heavily involved in developing the internet and educating the public in its use. The share of Estonian voters choosing the online option has grown steadily, reaching 43.8 percent in 2019 legislative elections.

Making voting mandatory

Whenever turnout plunges in France, some turn an envious eye to neighbouring Belgium, where voting has been compulsory since 1893. A voter who does not go to the polls when called to them can be fined €40 to €80, or up to €200 for a repeat offence. Voter participation is exemplary in Belgium even for European elections, which are generally weak-turnout affairs elsewhere on the continent.

Voting isn't only a right in Greece, either. Greek voters are obliged to turn out, although the penalty for begging off on election day there is administrative and not financial. Mandatory voting in Luxembourg, meanwhile, can mean fines of up to €1,000 for repeat offenders – in theory, at least, since penalties are never applied. In Switzerland, Schaffhausen is the only canton with compulsory voting, although transgressors there face only nominal fines.

Compulsory voting has never been instituted in France. In 2017, far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon proposed making voting mandatory from the age of 16 (lowering the voting age in the process, down from the current 18). During 2019's so-called Great Debate – the public consultations Macron launched to respond to grievances that surfaced during the Yellow Vest protest movement – 57 percent of those asked supported the idea, according to government figures.

And yet, there again, compulsory voting seems far from a miracle solution. In France, mainstream parties fear such a measure could boost support for political extremes. "The people who don't vote, if you force them to, could vote against the system and, therefore, for the extremes," Gilles Toulemonde, who teaches public law at the University of Lille, told Le Monde.

Indeed, abstention rates can climb even where casting a vote is the law. In Greece, for instance, voter turnout has dropped in recent years. In Bulgaria, where compulsory voting has been on the books since 2016, turnout has yet to surpass the 50 percent mark. Moreover, several European countries that once had mandatory voting have given up on the method, such as Italy in 1993 and Cyprus more recently, in 2017.

This article has been adapted from the original in French.