How do European Parliamentary elections work?

Voters in the UK will be voting to elect 73 Members of the European Parliament elections on Thursday 23 May.

This insight gives a guide to how those elections work in the UK.

Electoral systems

EU member states are required to hold European Parliament elections:

  • By direct universal suffrage;
  • By free and secret ballot;
  • They must be held the basis of proportional representation (PR) – either a list system or single transferable vote (STV). Seats are allocated broadly in proportion to the number of votes received.

The number of seats allocated to each country is set by the EU. Detailed rules for running the elections are left to each member state to arrange, including what form of PR they want to use.

What system does the UK use?

MEPs are elected by region, with a different number of MEPs per region based on electorate.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each form a single region. England is divided into nine regions.

There are two systems in the UK.

  • England, Scotland and Wales use a form of list system PR called the closed list system.
  • Northern Ireland uses STV.

Closed list system – England, Scotland and Wales

In this system, each party nominates a list of candidates. Parties then appear on the ballot paper with a list of their candidate names. The list shows the candidates in the order they will be elected if the party wins more than one seat.

Independent candidates not associated with a political party can also stand. They appear as an individual name on the ballot paper after the party lists.

Voting works in a similar way to a general election. Voters mark one ‘X’ on their ballot paper. They either choose to vote for one of the parties or one of the independent candidates. If voting for a party, voters cannot alter the order of the candidates.

Allocating seats – England, Scotland and Wales

Votes are counted by the returning officer and their staff in each local authority. The totals are then sent to the returning officer for the region. The regional returning officer is responsible for adding up all the totals and then allocating the seats.

The allocating of seats is done using a system called D’Hondt. In this system, the first seat goes to the party that has the most votes. A formula is then applied to a party’s original total vote each time it wins a seat

 Number of votes
Number of seats won +1

Independent candidates are effectively treated as a party list with just one candidate.

Imagine the region using our sample ballot paper above was due to elect 6 MEPs and the result for the regions was:

Party A 150,000
Party B78,000
Party C375,000
Party D420,000
Party E250,000
Independent 175,000

Party D would win the first seat because it polled the most votes. Candidate 1 on Party D’s list is elected. Party D’s vote is then divided in line with the D’Hondt formula: the number of seats already won + 1. In this case 1+1=2. This takes Party D’s total to 210,000 (420,000 ÷ 2).

The next seat goes to the party with the largest vote after the calculation has been taken into account.

Party C gets the 2nd seat. Party C’s vote then is recalculated as 187,500 (375,000 ÷ 2).

Party E gets the 3rd seat. Party E’s vote is then recalculated as 125,000 (250,000÷2).

After three seats are allocated our recalculated totals are:

Party A150,000
Party B78,000
Party C187,500
Party D210,000
Party E125,000
Independent 175,000

Candidate 2 on Party D’s list is elected. They win the fourth seat as Party D’s recalculated total after winning the first seat is still ahead of Party C’s total. Party D’s vote is then recalculated again. This time it is the original total number of votes ÷ 3 (total number of seats already won + 1). 420,000 ÷ 3 = 140,000.

The fifth seat is therefore allocated to Party C and its second candidate is elected. The Party’s  vote is recalculated as 125,000 (375,000÷3).

With one seat still to be allocated the totals are:

Party A150,000
Party B78,000
Party C125,000
Party D140,000
Party E125,000
Independent 175,000

It means the final seat is allocated to Party A. The final result would be Party D and Party C winning 2 seats each and one seat each for Party E and Party A. Party B and the Independent candidate fail to win any seats.

STV – Northern Ireland

The system used in Northern Ireland is also used for elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly and for local elections in Northern Ireland and Scotland.

There are no party lists, instead for the European Parliamentary election, each of the main parties will normally nominate a candidate. There are 3 seats available in Northern Ireland.

Instead of placing a ‘X’ next to a party list, voters in Northern Ireland will rank candidates using numbers. Voters mark the number 1 next to their first preference, then they rank other candidates 2, 3, 4, etc. Voters can rank as many or as few candidates as they want.

The allocation of seats is based on share of vote received by a candidate, the size of the electorate, and the number of seats to be filled. Candidates are elected if the reach a ‘quota’. The quota is calculated using a formula known as the Droop quota.

Once the quota is known, the first preference votes of all the candidates are counted. This is stage 1.

If a candidate reaches the quota at stage 1 they are declared elected.

If no one reaches the quota, the candidate with the lowest first preferences total will be eliminated, and their second preferences will be taken into account at the next stage of the count. Voters’ third, fourth preferences may be taken into account at later stages of the vote, depending how many stages are required for all the seats to be filled. If a ballot doesn’t show a second (or subsequent) preference it is called ‘non-transferable’.

When someone has reached the quota their ‘surplus votes’ are reallocated. This is done by analysing all their second preference votes and calculating what proportion of surplus votes should be allocated to other candidates.

This is best demonstrated by looking at what happened in 2014. The quota was 156,532 votes. At stage 1 only one candidate achieved the quota. Martina Anderson, the Sinn Féin candidate received 159,813 first preference votes. This was 3,281 above the quota.

All 159,813 ballots were then examined to see what second preferences had been given. About 33,500 were non-transferrable, because there was no second preference indicated. Over 100,000 expressed a second preference for the SDLP candidate, or 62.67% of the total.

The actual surplus votes reallocated to the SDLP candidate was therefore calculated as 62.67% of the surplus (3,281) and the SDLP candidate’s total increased by 2,056.26 votes. This is why you can receive fractions of votes in STV elections.

Reallocation of eliminated candidates and of surplus votes from candidates who have reached the quota continue until all available seats have been filled. There were 8 stages of counting in Northern Ireland in 2014 to fill the three seats.

Neil Johnston is an election specialist at the House of Commons Library.

Image: Littledown: election count underway / Chris Downer / CC BY-SA 2.0

Stay up to date

Sign up to email alerts every time we publish new research on the topics you’re interested in