Europe’s voters can be uninterested at the best of times—witness the 62% turnout in the second round of local elections in France in March—but it is for the European Parliament elections every five years that many reserve their greatest apathy.
That lack of interest could reflect a general disillusionment with politics, with the young in particular impacted by high levels of unemployment and struggling economies in many European countries. But governments are also missing a trick when it comes to trying to engage more effectively with voters, and particularly with the technology-savvy younger demographic.
The voting statistics for European Parliament elections make for grim reading. Total voter turnout has declined in each of the seven elections since 1979, and in the last in 2009 just 43 per cent of European citizens across 27 States cast a ballot; amongst young people, the proportion was a paltry 29%. The situation does not look likely to improve: A Guardian/ICM poll in February on the intentions of UK voters, found that just 27% of 1,002 people surveyed said they were certain to vote in the May elections.
Yet some countries are already showing that by embracing technology—in particular mobility and internet-based solutions—and giving people a greater choice of how to vote, they could encourage more engagement. In Estonia, a frontrunner in the practice of electronic voting from personal devices, or ‘i-voting’, 22% of citizens eligible to vote in the 2013 elections did so online, while almost one in 10 voted using a mobile device. Since i-voting was introduced in local elections in Estonia in 2005, the number of voters using this method has risen from around 9,000 to more than 133,000.
The explosion in the use of mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets provides a significant opportunity for governments to reverse the European election trends and drive up voter engagement. IDC says handset vendors shipped 1.004 billion smartphones worldwide in 2013, up from 725.3 million in 2012, accounting for 55.1% of all mobile phone shipments last year. What’s more, eMarketer forecasts that by 2017 Europe will account for seven of the top 10 countries for smartphone penetration globally.
Social media and messaging applications on mobile devices could also play a part in stimulating greater interest in the voting process, and again particularly among younger users. According to a recent eGovernment report from Capgemini, entitled Digital by Default or Detour, more than 80% of students in Europe access the mobile internet from their smartphones at least once a day.
Of course, certain concerns will be raised over i-voting, chief among them voter fraud and security. But while there will certainly be challenges to ensure that sufficiently secure processes are put in place, lessons can be learned from organizations in other sectors such as retail and banking that already have robust mobility solutions in place.
Coherent and rigorous, end-to-end mobility strategies will need to be adopted by governments to ensure that the security of systems and processes are maintained. And it will require tight front- and back-end integration of services with existing systems, as well as the implementation of secure technologies such as strong encryption and digital signatures.
But that is a small price to pay. Mobility could radically change the way elections are shaped in future, driving greater voter engagement and reinvigorating the democratic process.