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European elections: Why are Portugal and Malta allowing early voting?

 A giant canvas promoting the European elections is seen on the European Parliament in April in Strasbourg, eastern France
A giant canvas promoting the European elections is seen on the European Parliament in April in Strasbourg, eastern France Copyright Jean-Francois Badias/The AP
Copyright Jean-Francois Badias/The AP
By Saskia O'Donoghue
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With EU member states heading to the polls, here's how the elections differ from country to country.

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Between 6 and 9 June, some 350 million people across 27 European Union member states will come together to elect 720 members of the European Parliament.

While the parliament to be elected will represent everybody in the bloc, each country votes slightly differently - and that’s particularly apparent this year.

While each nation uses the system of proportional representation - which means that a party's share of the vote is reflected in its seat tally - each individual country uses its own variant.

Nineteen countries use the preferential voting system, where voters are able to express their preference for one or more candidates.

In some of the countries using this method, including Italy, Poland, the Netherlands and the Nordic nations, voters can only change the position of candidates on a single list. In others, they can pick candidates from different lists.

Workers push boxes full of voting ballots and election materials as they are prepared to be shipped to polling stations at the Inni Group in Kortrijk, Belgium on Wednesday
Workers push boxes full of voting ballots and election materials as they are prepared to be shipped to polling stations at the Inni Group in Kortrijk, Belgium on WednesdayVirginia Mayo/The AP

In the end, candidates who win the most preference votes overall win seats.

Closed-list voting is preferred by six countries, including Germany, France and Spain. Voters in those nations can only vote for a party list and are unable to alter the order of the party's candidates on the list.

The final method is the single transferable vote system, used by Malta and Ireland. Here, voters rank candidates in order of their preference and the MEP is selected once they reach a certain threshold of votes.

Any votes left over are subsequently leant to the voter's next-preferred candidate to help them get across the line and potentially win a seat, too.

Over four days, the vast majority of EU countries will place all their votes - but, in two, early voting is coming into force for the first time.

Why are Portugal and Malta allowing early voting in the EU elections?

Many Portuguese people took to the polls several days early on Sunday, following the worst abstention rate in the country during 2019’s election.

That year, some 68.6% eligible people failed to vote - the worst rate since they joined the European Union in 1986. To put that into perspective - the rate across Europe as a whole is closer to 50%.

This year, Portuguese lawmakers have tried to reverse the trend, allowing every citizen - not just the traditional early voters made up of the likes of sick people and those abroad - to vote early.

A woman pushes a baby stroller past a Socialist Party billboard for the European election, outside the party's headquarters in Lisbon on Friday
A woman pushes a baby stroller past a Socialist Party billboard for the European election, outside the party's headquarters in Lisbon on FridayArmando Franca/The AP

They are also able to vote away from the place where they are registered, as long as they have their citizen ID to hand. They’ll be able to go to the polls up until the 9 June, when the official vote is held.

The Portuguese will elect 21 MEPs.

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In Malta the system is slightly changed, too.

The Mediterranean island nation’s Electoral Commission allowed voters who will be abroad or hospitalised on their polling day - 8 June - to vote on Saturday, 1 June instead.

It’s not yet clear how many people took this opportunity to vote early, but it will be interesting to see if other countries take the change onboard during future elections.

How do other EU countries run their elections?

In some countries in the bloc, there appears to be little need to put in place any early voting or make changes to the established system.

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That’s particularly true in Belgium, Greece, Bulgaria and Luxembourg, where voting in the EU elections is mandatory. However, action is rarely taken against abstainers.

In every other country, whether to vote or not is down to the individual - although the rules differ slightly across borders.

Belgium and Germany have recently joined Austria and Malta in lowering the voting age for the ballot to 16.

And in Greece it is 17.

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Age is not just a factor for voters but also for prospective MEPs.

In most countries, a candidate has to be 18 to stand in the election but in Poland and the Czech Republic, they must be 21. In Romania it's 23 and in Italy and Greece it’s 25 years old.

Belgium was 21 but it was lowered to 18 years old in 2021.

A number of countries worldwide have women severely underrepresented in their parliaments. This is rarely the case in the EU and, taking representation further still, ten countries including France, Italy, Belgium and Luxembourg, actually impose gender quotas on party lists.

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In Greece, Spain, Portugal, Croatia and Slovenia, parties running for election must field at least 40% of candidates of each gender. In Poland, that figure is 35%.

Romania is lagging behind, with women making up just 15% of the nation’s band of MEPs, meaning the country is the most male-dominated in the European Parliament.

Luxembourg has the most female representatives at 67%, followed by Finland and Sweden with 57% and 52% respectively.

Interestingly, those two Nordic countries don’t have any gender-based quotas in place.

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Some aspects of the election are a little old fashioned. Unlike in some elections, which are increasingly using digital methods of registering votes, it’s nearly unheard of in the EU elections.

In fact, only Estonia allows its citizens to cast their ballots electronically.

Elsewhere, some 13 states, including Germany, Spain and the Nordic nations, allow postal voting, mostly for the benefit of citizens living abroad.

And Greece’s many expats will try the system for the first time in this election.

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