What do submarines, high-security prisons and tropical islands have in common? They’re all places where you might catch a European voting in May’s EU-wide parliamentary election.
Here are the most surprising places voters will be casting their ballots:
1. The far east
The EU’s easternmost point on the Continent might lie on a small island in the Finnish lake of Virmajärvi. But travel some 14,125 kilometers further east and you’ll come to the island collectivity of Wallis and Futuna, a French territory in the South Pacific that is home to 12,000 citizens who can also vote in the European election.
Starting in 2004, all inhabited French overseas departments and collectivities counted as one constituency, granting its 1.5 million registered voters the right to elect three deputies to the European Parliament. But since the French National Assembly abolished the Overseas Territories constituency last May, it is now up to France’s political parties to decide whether or not to include candidates from overseas territories on their lists for the European election.
2. The Indian Ocean
Réunion, a French island in the Indian Ocean with a population of about 800,000, is the EU’s southernmost inhabited region. The electoral campaign ahead of the European vote is “in principal” no different from “what is done on the national level,” says Younous Omarjee, an MEP from Réunion voted into the European Parliament in 2014. But the issues that strike a chord with voters are usually different, he concedes, citing sugar and fishing as dominating debate on the island.
Britain might be leaving the EU, but a large number of people across the Channel will still be voting in the next European election.
The last European Parliament election elicited little interest in France’s overseas territories, with turnout dropping to a record low of 17 percent, according to Radio New Zealand. Still, the islands have a better track record than some EU countries: In Slovakia, only 13 percent cast a ballot in the 2014 election.
3. The high north
In Finland’s least densely populated region, people often have to travel “hundreds of kilometers” on election day to cast their ballots, says Mika Riipi, Lapland’s regional governor.
With a density of 17 inhabitants per square kilometer, Finland has the third-lowest population density in Europe, after non-EU countries Iceland and Norway. Lapland is home to some 180,000 people — and an equal number of reindeer — living on 99,000 km².
Some chose to vote ahead of time by dropping off a ballot at a nearby pick-up point several weeks before the election. Around 30 to 40 percent of Finns chose to mail in their votes early in the last election, according to Riip, who adds the number of people doing so “is growing.”
Finland’s Lapland region is home to as many reindeer as it is people | Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images
4. War zones
When it comes to voting while serving in the military, national authorities set the rules.
Members of the German military, for example, can only vote via mail. “The armed forces will take care [of the paperwork], so everybody has the appropriate papers available at time of the vote,” says Christian Scherrer, a spokesperson of Germany’s defense ministry.
For anyone stationed on a submarine, this system makes voting a little more challenging. Voting has to be done far enough in advance that “it will be back in Germany on the appropriate time,” says Scherrer, recalling having had to send ballots from a foreign port “four or five weeks” before the election date.
5. Border town
How and when to vote is perhaps most confusing in the Dutch town of Baarle-Nasseau, also called Baarle-Hertog. This small town in the south of the Netherlands contains 22 small exclaves of Belgium, some of which also contain Dutch counter-enclaves.
Practically speaking, this means that some streets are divided by a curved border made up of white crosses and markings that tell you whether you are currently standing in the Netherlands or in Belgium. In one case, a resident was told to pick a country — the border went straight through his front door.
The zig-zagging boundary also means that the town’s 8,000 residents will vote at different times and using different ballots. The Dutch will head to the polling station on May 23, followed three days later by their Belgian neighbors.
Estonia, often touted as the continent’s most digitally advanced country, is the only EU country where nationals can vote online.
Turnout is also radically different depending on where you live in this small town. Because voting is compulsory in Belgium, turnout on the Belgian side is high — almost 90 percent. In the Dutch parts of town, meanwhile, only 37 percent showed up to vote in the last European election.
Estonia, often touted as the continent’s most digitally advanced country, is the only EU country where nationals can vote online. According to the government, a third of Estonians use the so-called “i-Voting” system launched in 2005.
It’s a time-saver for those who don’t want to spend time queuing at a local polling station, but also a useful tool for indecisive voters — citizens can change their vote as many times as they like until voting closes, with only their final choice taken into account.
7. In prison
Among the half a million people incarcerated in prison systems across the bloc, a large proportion are eligible to determine the make-up of the next European Parliament.
Their ability to vote depends on their location and the crime committed, after the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2012 that every country has the right to legislate its own rules on voting rights for prisoners — providing they don’t instate a blanket ban.
A guard walks down a corridor in a French prison. In France, prisoners may vote if they meet certain critiera for eligibility | Jeff Pachoud/AFP via Getty Images
In at least 18 European countries, including Denmark, Finland, Spain and Sweden, there are no constraints on prisoners who want to vote. In Germany and France, a prisoner’s eligibility depends on the crime committed or the length of the sentence. People sentenced in Germany for crimes that target the integrity of the state, such as terrorists, are barred from voting, for example.
8. The United Kingdom
Britain might be leaving the EU, but a large number of people across the Channel will still be voting in the next European election. Around 6 percent of the U.K. population — some 3.7 people — are citizens of another EU country, according to data from the British office of national statistics.
Just under 1 million are Polish nationals, making Poles the largest European community in Britain. They’re followed by an estimated 433,000 Romanians and 337,000 Irish nationals.
Eddy Wax contributed reporting to this article.