Mobility and youth participation within the EU: are they incompatible?

16.09.2020 | Federico Plantera

Young people are the most reluctant social group to engage in voting. Research has clearly shown that across the past two decades, starting from seminal works on social capital and democratic participation, citing diverse explanations – from a decline in the perceived value of voting, to general disaffection towards institutions and party systems.

In the European context, the situation is made even more complex by the fact that citizens are called to elect members of parliament also in supranational institutions, i.e. the European Parliament.

Why is this a problem? It should actually be a unifying call to participation, since people from different Member States take part in the same round of voting to elect their representatives in the common European assembly. Instead, not only participation in European elections is generally lower as compared to national ones, but administrative hurdles and discrepancies in registration procedures might preclude mobile EU citizens from exercising their voting rights.


The European Commission aims to see things clearly with EMY

The European Commission’s EMY (European Mobile Youth) project aims to shine a light on what hinders the most mobile age group of all in the EU – young people – from decisively engaging in European elections.

Photo: Adobe Stock


As part of the consortium carrying out the project activities, we have conducted surveys and interviews with international students in Estonia to take stock of the situation. Our partner think thank Politikos has done the same in Austria, covering the second country chosen as a case study for the project.

Taking us through assessed issues and findings emerging from the research, Radu Serrano, Project Manager for EMY at e-Governance Academy, warns about an important characteristic of the sample analysed. “Firstly, we must clarify that we are aware of an inherent selection bias, since the participants in this project are implicitly declaring an interest in joining and engaging in political discourse,” Serrano says.

And indeed, looking at a summary of descriptive statistics on electoral awareness (see table below), only 3% and 7% of respondents, in Austria and Estonia respectively, did not know about the upcoming elections of May 2019 for the renewal of the European Parliament mandates. In both countries, the international students interviewed were also generally conscious about the possibility to vote for a candidate from their host country (the place where they resided at that moment, abroad), but much less aware of the possibility to stand as candidates themselves. Despite this acquired knowledge, nonetheless, prevailed a preference to eventually vote for a home country candidate.

Austria Estonia
Aware of the upcoming (2019) elections for the European Parliament 97% 93%
Aware of right to vote for a host country candidate 63% 75%
Aware of right to stand as a candidate in host country 24% 39%
Preference in voting for a home country
/ host country candidate
75% / 25% 76% / 24%
Table. Summary of descriptive statistics on electoral awareness among survey respondents, EMY project


So young people abroad want to vote, but they can’t?

The keyword to focus on here is eventually. Because even before getting to the point of expressing a preference in the ballot box, and whether our survey respondents even intend to do that or not, major technical obstacles prevent institutional stakeholders from guaranteeing this opportunity to them.

As Radu Serrano puts it, “There is a common proverb that goes “Where there’s a will, there’s a way”. We have seen that there is a will, but the way is not so easy to achieve. The problems of the practical aspects of voting, which prevent the European mobile youth from exercising their right to vote, lie in the complexity of electoral preparation and management, prerogatives under the responsibilities and sovereignty of each country. Solutions exist, but they must be adapted to the individual country contexts and needs.”

Photo: Adobe Stock


Despite the displayed general high interest in the European Union and its salient issues, from environmental policy to education, and decision-making processes, mobile young people currently find hard to take part in elections when residing away from their home country. Challenges highlighted regarding engagement with politics in the host country, in fairness quite logically, are about language barriers and the respondents’ expected or actual length of stay.

However, problems to promptly address emerge from another set of barriers that were pointed out. Both in home and host countries, administrative issues such as insufficient information about registration and voting procedures, and the lack of appropriate tools to favour electoral participation, held the lion’s share of the issues mentioned.


How internet voting might solve the problem

It is on this latter point, on overcoming administrative and bureaucratic obstacles, that technology can come to our aid. In one of the ways probably more relevant than ever, considering that it would mean allowing young people to exercise their right to vote regardless of their temporary location. Within the realm of electoral participation by means of ICTs, internet voting stands out as a potential solution to the practical issues highlighted by EMY respondents.

Photo: Adobe Stock


“A simple way to differentiate these two categories, electronic from internet voting, would be that the latter is a sub-category of the former. The first, e-voting, includes also voting through electronic polling machines; i-voting, instead, is done remotely through the Internet. In Estonia, both terms are used interchangeably, with i-voting still preferred, because residents have been voting remotely since 2005. However, the project activities in Austria used the term e-voting, even when explaining the focus on remote or internet voting,” Serrano explains.

“E-voting in other European countries has seen some setbacks, ranging from botched trials up to questions on its constitutionality. Previous knowledge of such cases, combined with the term ‘e-voting’, might have had an underlying impact in increasing the gap in attitudes on the topic between respondents in Austria and in Estonia,” he continues.


Internet voting in Estonia – choice to the people with people’s choice

When presented with the question of whether internet voting could be considered a viable option to cast their ballots, 87% of EMYs in Estonia would vote through the internet, while the percentage decreases to 68% of respondents in Austria. The stronger points in favour of internet voting were found in its speed, ease of access, time-saving potential. On the other hand, lack confidence and perceived risks on secrecy of the vote and cybersecurity still fuel the worries of some.

Andrea, an EMY who was studying at Tartu University. Photo: Helen Aasa


“I believe this gap in preferences between the two countries is due to first-hand experiences with internet voting (43,8% of voters in Estonia cast their vote online at the last elections for European Parliament), the proof of usage of i-voting since 2005, the status of Estonia as a digital society, and the available information and explanations on i-voting. Such transparency makes it easier for a citizen to consider the facts and decide to use it if they deem it a trustworthy tool,” Serrano points out.

EMY interview respondents in Estonia, indeed, are quite set on considering i-voting as a viable method for casting their electoral preference. As one of them reported:

“I think for me i-voting would be something cool. […] Ok, you can vote also by mail, but it takes time…a lot of time. You need to go to post office. But with i-voting […] it takes some minutes and that’s it. That would be really-really cool.” (Participant 5, Focus Group 1)

And it is interesting to notice how another interviewee confirmed the relationship between increased trust in internet voting and first-hand experience with it:

“I voted like this in local elections and I am almost tempted to vote physically in EP elections just to see how it is. But depends on time, I guess. But yeah…i-voting is great, you can do it abroad, you can do it at home.” (Participant 2, Focus Group 1)

So how can we get there elsewhere in Europe too, and make the voice of our mobile youth be heard even from abroad? “The prerequisites are not only technological, but socio-political as well. From the technological side, we can mention the existence and utilisation of a unique persistent identifier, followed by an electronic identification and the entire physical and digital infrastructure necessary to use it. These elements contribute to the development and improvement of e-governance in general too. Then, primarily used for i-voting, the voting software and hardware,” Serrano says.

From the socio-political side, instead, “We must think about the use of and/or confidence in all of these individual prerequisites prior to the implementation of voting, and the necessary governmental changes in its organisation, structure, legislation, among other sectors,” eGA’s Project Manager concludes.


This article was drafted in collaboration with the EMY eGA Team.

This project is funded by the European Union’s Rights, Equality and Citizenship Programme (2014-2020). All data and findings have been retrieved from official EMY Project documentation, which can be found here.


EMY Report: Andrea's story
EMY Report: Andrea's story

Andrea, a MA’s student from Italy, studied and lived in Tartu in 2019. Check the video and get to know what he thinks about i-voting.

Andrea, a MA’s student from Italy, studied and lived in Tartu in 2019. Check the video and get to know what he thinks about i-voting.