What happens when all votes are not counted equal (redux).

The new European Commission is out, for the first time claiming electoral legitimacy. Yet the actual votes received by each political party are nowhere to be found on the otherwise highly informative website of the European Parliament. Eye-catching graphics show only the percent relative to the total. So, who got more votes in Europe in 2014?

The new European Commission has just been announced by its President-elect, Jean-Claude Junker. Yes, elected. This is the qualifier that is already common currency among commentators. Inspired by the new provisions of the Lisbon Treaty the main European political groups have organized the electoral campaign for the European Parliament around the spitzenkandidaten, one (or two) for each political group, with the understanding that the Council would heed their interpretation of the Treaty and nominate the new president of the Commission ‘taking into account the results of the elections for the European Parliament’. The Parliament’s encroachment on what used to be the Council’s turf was hardly welcome. Still, either for want of a better alternative or because of the worrying deterioration of the European project’s legitimacy – confirmed by the electoral success of the Euro-skeptics – the Council played ball. The European People’s Party (EPP) won the elections. Jean-Claude Junker was the EPP’s spitzenkandidat for the presidency of the Commission. The Council nominated him on June 27. The Parliament duly approved the nomination in July.

The EPP won the election. This is an undisputed fact. The national parties or lists registered with the EPP won altogether 221 seats. Those belonging to the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) won 191. End of story.

Or is it? In the aftermath of last May elections I was looking for the actual total votes received by each party on the otherwise highly informative website of the European Parliament, but they were nowhere to be seen. The only figures shown with eye-catching graphics were the percent relative to the total. Well, does it make a difference? It does. The electoral system of choice for the elections of the European Parliament, enshrined in the treaties, is proportional representation. Each country is free to choose how to implement it in practice (how to design the electoral constituencies, which counting method to use to assign seats, etc.) Even the total number of seats are pre-allocated to each country proportionally to their population. Although very small countries are over-represented compared with the bigger ones, the proportionality principle still holds. Let it be clear, in the proportional world, nobody is perfect. There are many sources of distortion from pure proportionality between total votes and total seats. Some are introduced by design to ensure adequate representation of geographically concentrated minorities. Still, one would expect that departures from pure proportionality would not alter the final result. In a majority electoral system it is ‘normal’ for a party to win the majority of seats while receiving less total votes than its main opponent. However, if this happens in a proportional system there’s something wrong.

That is why I wanted to see the total votes received by each European political group. Since I could not find them easily in one place, and I didn’t have time to check on each individual national electoral authority, I calculated an estimate based on population (as a proxy of the electorate), actual turnout and actual seats won in each country by each party. The results were surprising: the EPP had received less total votes than S&D. But this was just an estimate, so I jotted down a brief note, sent it around to friends and political analysts, and went back to may job – which is not on electoral studies. After all, I didn’t have the actual votes.

The recent announcement of the composition of the new Junker’s Commission motivated me to take another look into the matter. Mining the results from 28 national electoral authorities was still beyond the time I could allocate to the task. What I did was to copy the results from the wikipedia pages dedicated to the May 2014 European elections for each country. I did a sample check for France, Belgium and Italy. For France the match was almost perfect. Otherwise, the numbers published on wikipedia were not matching exactly those on the respective official electoral websites. For Belgium the difference is negligible. For Italy it is of the same order of the final results. With this caveat in mind, assuming that the errors on wikipedia would be randomly distributed, I run the total count and the end result confirmed the early estimate: S&D received more individual votes than EPP. The difference is small, 400thousand votes over a total of more than 150 million (I consider here only the votes cast for the parties or lists that won at least one seat).

European Parlament elections 2014
European political groupVotes (wp)Votes %SeatsSeats %
EPP39 911 77326.622129.4
S&D40 293 10426.819125.4
ECR11 874 1997.9709.3
ALDE13 183 7998.8678.9
GUE/NGL12 486 8078.3526.9
Greens/NFA11 309 7387.5506.7
EFDD10 822 4717.2486.4
NI10 221 0646.8526.9
Total150 102 955751

The complete dataset can be found here. It will be updated as soon as better data are available.

At first glance this departure from the principle of proportionality can be explained in the first place by looking at the effects of the combination of two factors: the over-representation of smaller countries in the pre-allocation of seats and the high variation in electoral turnout among different countries. A low turnout in a smaller country means that the votes-to-seat ratio in that country will be extremely small when compared with a larger country with a higher turnout. So we have the contrasting cases of SP.a – the French-speaking social-democrats – that in high turnout Belgium (vote is mandatory) have received 550-thousand votes for one MEP. On the other end of the spectrum, we have the social-democrats of Slovakia (lowest turnout, only 13%) that elected four MEP with a total of 135-thousand votes. I intentionally compared two parties from the same political group to avoid an easy selection bias. Likewise, I did not consider the very small countries whose impact is arguably negligible.

Now the first step would be to ensure that the data found on wikipedia are sound and reliable. Collaboration on this is most welcome.

At the same time, I would be glad if the European Parliament started to publish also the raw data on actual votes, not only the relative percents.


Cover photo from WikiPedia