05/22/2014 05:59 pm ET Updated Jul 22, 2014

Voter Turnout at EU Polls: Disinterest Can Be Expensive

Many voters are tired of elections. In the last two German federal elections, only seven out of ten eligible voters casted their vote. For the next European elections even a turnout of less than 50 percent is feared. Not a good omen for democracy -- which prospers in a wide consent and active participation of citizens.

It strikes me that young voters rarely cast their vote while the 60-69 year olds turn out to vote regularly. In addition, the proportion of older people is significantly higher than that of younger people: In the last federal election, the generation 60+ counted 21.3 million -- more than twice as many voters as the younger generation under 30. Therefore, the influence of older citizens on political decisions and election programs is particularly large. This can be followed by policies that affect the life of the younger generation in the long term. A recent example is the reduced retirement age to 63 years, which will result in dreadful financial burdens for the young generation. In other words: Young people just cannot afford not going to the polls.

Of course, the European election is not such an event that knocks peoples' socks off, but same problems as described above also apply for those elections. It's somewhat of a pity that much of Europe's achievements go without saying, such as the crossing EU borders without passport control or to be able to freely choose study places or residence within Europe and to pay anywhere with the Euro. But these achievements must also be maintained. Therefore, the European Union needs positive signs such as high voter turnout by the EU citizens.

What should be done? Introduce compulsory voting as is the case in Belgium? Using fines for unjustified absence from the election like in Australia? Such ordinance would have a huge administrative burden. For Germany, this would not be possible, because this would be a huge encroachment on the freedom of the individual equivalent to governmental paternalism. No wonder that the vast majority of Germans militate against compulsory voting. It only remains to employ soft methods to convince people to vote. In the U.S, scientists have already been concerned with the phenomenon of low turnout rates and how to address it.

A number of interesting insights can be transferred to Germany. An important point is that timing is what matters. Election campaign last for weeks with posters and campaign events -- as it regularly appears in Germany -- is not such an effective means to counter the voter tiredness. However, advertising in the period shortly before the election date led to a measurable higher participation. U.S. researchers also highlighted the fact that the commitment of every citizen has a strong positive effect, for example, when a citizen addresses his or her neighbors, acquaintances or friends on the upcoming election and asks them if they go to the polls. Research reveals here an increase in the turnout of up to 20 percent.

Based on the psychological idea of visualization, there is another way to influence people's voting behavior in a positive way: Citizens were asked about what they intend to do on Election Day and what time they will vote. Based on these simple questions, the respondents were visualizing their daily routine and voter turnout increased immensely. The reason why this psychological trick works out is that the active imagination of an action eventually increases the probability of doing the action.

Furthermore, herd behavior plays an important role for nudging to vote. However, it needs to be applied correctly. To increase female turnout, the US-female organization used a special trick before the 2004 presidential election. The organization sent out a letter to one million single women saying: "Four years ago 22 billion women did not go to the polls." With this information, female non-voters should have been motivated to cast their votes. Nevertheless, the opposite occurred, because we all are seeking social approval and don't want to behave differently than others in order to match the standard.

The approach should rather be to raise peoples' attention towards the huge amount of people that actually make use of their right to vote. In experiments in which it was emphasized that 'the vast majority of citizens registered to vote', voter turnout significantly increased compared to a control group. These findings could be applied to motivate young people by formulating positive statements about how many of their peers have participated in the last election.

The result of the forthcoming European elections is immensely important especially in times of the financial and economic crisis. To at least not undercut a turnout of 50 percent, we should ask ourselves how parties and elections can become more attractive. In addition, we should consider how to bring young people to the polls with small, well-intentioned tools. Thus, the vicious cycle could be stopped: the smaller the amount of young voters the fewer they are represented by the Parliament and the higher their political apathy. For a strong Europe, we need a strong democracy that is supported by all groups of society.

IW policy papers : "Elections, wealth, and well-being - On low turnout rates and seven soft ways to increase turnout"