Paul's Column: How votes are counted in EU elections - the d'Hondt system explained

07 May 2019

The unexpected election is upon us. Today, across the UK, local councils will be sending out postal votes for the European elections on Thursday 23rd May, an election the Prime Minister had promised the country we would not be taking part in.

Depending on the final turn out, this could mean that by the weekend, half the votes in the 2019 European elections will have been cast. For an election that two months ago wasn’t happening this is a quick turnaround in events.

Last month I was packing up my office in Brussels and contemplating redundancy, this month I’m campaigning to be re-elected and wondering if I won’t be redundant after all. It’s a topsy-turvy existence that results in one feeling rather discombobulated.

By way of an experiment, you too can experience discombobulation by trying to follow the explanation, set out below, of the voting system used in the majority of EU countries, including the UK, to elect MEPs.

The system is known as the d’Hondt system and is named after a 19th century Belgian lawyer and mathematician by the name of Victor d'Hondt.

It is one of the many forms of voting classified as proportional representation (PR).

It works by dividing the country into 11 electoral regions: nine in England, plus Scotland and Wales.

Parties vying for election submit a list of candidates to the electorate in each region. 
The North East is the smallest of the English regions and we have only three MEPs to represent us, unlike London and the North West, which both have eight, and Yorkshire which has six.

I’m one of Labour’s three listed candidates and six other parties are also standing in our region, namely: the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Change UK, Brexit Party, UKIP and Greens.

The ballot paper will list the seven parties showing the party name, logo and list of candidates. The voter selects one party only with a cross. There is no second preference as in the recent North of Tyne mayoral election.

Voters, therefore, get to see which candidates will be elected but they can’t change the order of those candidates. For example, if someone really dislikes the top name on a party’s list but likes the second name then, they are still forced to choose between voting for that party or not. They can’t say ‘I want to vote for party X but I don’t want the top name and instead prefer someone lower on that list’.

Polling day in the UK will be on Thursday 23rd May, but all other EU countries will vote slightly later on Saturday 25th or Sunday 26th. Consequently, the UK doesn’t count its votes until all the polling stations have closed on Sunday night in the rest of the EU.

This means UK candidates have to wait a full three days before they know the outcome of their endeavours. Believe me, this is a long wait!

If the voting system was first past the post, as with the election of MPs to Westminster, the votes would be counted and the person with the most would then be elected, simple. Not so under d’Hondt. Instead, the votes are counted and the party with the most votes wins a seat for the candidate at the top of its list.

As the North East has three seats, we move on to a second round in which the winning party's vote is divided by two, and whichever party comes out on top in the re-ordered results wins a seat for their top candidate.

The process repeats itself, with the original vote of the winning party in each round being divided by one plus their running total of MEPs, until all three seats for the region have been taken.

Are you feeling discombobulated now?

As with all PR systems it ensures that you cannot, say, win 70% of the seats with only 30% of the vote, yet it is also a form of PR that sets a high threshold for smaller parties to win seats, especially in the North East region where only three seats are allocated. It is possible for quite a lot of votes to be ‘wasted’ by going to parties who do not quite reach the threshold for getting one seat.

As a result, tactical voting to pump up the support of another party can make sense just as it does in first past the post. The logic that tactical voting can help one party past the post still applies. It’s just a bit more complicated to work out what tactical voting option might work best, which dear reader is where you come in!

Do you think the North East needs its own voice in the EU exit negotiations?

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