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Hearts and minds: How UK's voting system for EU elections can allow new parties to surge ahead

The UK votes differently to Ireland in the European Elections, and this difference may help to explain why Farage’s party could win.

Nigel Farage casting his vote today
Nigel Farage casting his vote today
Image: Kirsty O'Connor/PA Images

LIKE IRELAND WILL tomorrow, the UK goes to the polls today to cast their ballots in the European Parliament elections. 

If Brexit had taken place as originally planned, these elections across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland today wouldn’t be taking place but the Westminster impasse and the woes of Theresa May’s government means the UK is still very much in the EU at this time.

Now, if and when the UK eventually leaves the EU, all the MEPs chosen by the British electorate today will no longer be members of the European Parliament.

But, these votes are seen as a crucial barometer of the sentiment of the British public. Nigel Farage’s newly-formed Brexit party has stormed ahead in the opinion polls, while the pro-remain Liberal Democrats are experiencing a similar surge in fortunes.

How, though, could a party come out of nowhere and potentially win more seats than all the establishment parties? It’s likely not going to happen here, but it could happen in the UK.

Here’s why.

D’Hondt system

Source: beebNEWSgfx/YouTube

So, with the Irish system, candidates are personally listed on the ballot along with the name of their party/or not if they’re an independent.

People list who they want to elect in order of preference first choice, second choice, third etc. These single transferable vote means that the worst-performing candidate in the first round of voting will have the ballots that chose them as their first choice transferred to the second choice and so on.

Every vote counted should then, in theory if people list all their preferences, go towards someone with no votes wasted on the person in dead last or the runaway winner. 

England, Scotland and Wales will, on the other hand, use the D’Hondt system for electing members to the European Parliament. Such a closed list system is also used in the likes of Portugal, France, Spain and Germany. 

In the UK, voters cast their ballot for parties rather than individuals. Voters choose the party they favour the most – rather than a specific candidate. And it’s just one vote, it cannot be transferred like in the Irish system.

So, on the ballot paper, it will list the parties’ names – with their candidates listed under the party name – and any independent candidate.

It’s up to the party to choose who gets the seats allocated to them by the electorate. There are 12 constituencies across the UK, with 73 MEP spots up for grabs.

It gets a bit more complicated from there – as highlighted in the images below – but the general principle is that the party with the highest votes get the most number of seats.

illustrative example Source: EU Parliament

illustrative example 2 Source: European Parliament

Brexit party hopes

This voting system does help to explain why such a new party like the Brexit party can surge ahead and potentially take the most seats.

When people are casting their ballots, they’re voting specifically for a party – not a person. While parties put people atop their lists that they think will appeal most to the electorate, it’s still a party someone is voting for.

Farage’s Brexit party has surged ahead in the opinion polls, on its very clear platform of being anti-EU and wanting the UK out of Europe as quickly as possible. If the polls are to believed, it has won wide support in the face of the ongoing Brexit impasse in Westminster. 

Similarly, it was UKIP, a relatively small party who hadn’t fared well in Westminster elections, that won the most seats at the 2014 European Parliament. It received almost 27% of the popular vote.

Farage was at the helm of UKIP at the time, too, and ran an anti-EU campaign throughout.

Despite its strong performance in 2014, the party won just one seat in the 650-seat House of Commons in the 2015 General Election. Due to the electoral system for UK general elections, its vote share of 12.6% only gave it the solitary seat in Westminster.

While Labour and Conservatives dominate general elections, the European Elections are a different beast entirely. 

Voting concludes today but, due to EU rules, we won’t have the first official results from anywhere including the UK and Ireland until 10pm on Sunday night.

Exit polls are similarly not expected until then, so it’ll be a long wait to see if Farage’s party have indeed won sufficient support to triumph with Brexit still looming over the UK. 

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About the author:

Sean Murray

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