Bloc-Voting, Backstabbing and Brexit: What Do Eurovision Voting Patterns Tell Us?

By Stephen Jorgenson-Muray on at

Half of Europe woke up last Sunday morning with a pounding hangover and a dim memory of a woman clucking like a chicken. This can only mean one thing: Eurovision is back.

The voting is half the fun of the Eurovision Song Contest – who doesn’t shout at the television when all the Balkan countries vote for each other, or Greece and Cyprus award each other 12 points? With a bit of statistical magic, we can dig deeper into exactly who voted for whom, and what this says about Europe.

A map of Eurovision 2018. Darker colours indicate higher scores

Quick voting explainer

In case you’re not familiar with Eurovision, or if you’re just a bit too tipsy by that point of the night to follow, here’s a brief explanation of how the voting works. There are two parts to the scoring: first, a jury of five musicians from each country rates the songs. Their favourite song gets 12 points, their second favourite gets 10 points, then 8 points, 7 points, 6 points and so on down to 1 point. These scores are the ones you see read out by weirdly dressed presenters standing in front of national monuments.

Next, the phone voters from the viewers are converted into a score between 1 and 12 in exactly the same way. These points are added right at the end of the night to add some suspense to the scoring system. Although no-one announces who they give their 12 points to, the Eurovision organisers post the complete results to their website (and some hero then copied them to Wikipedia in a much easier to work with format).

So, what can we learn from this year’s results?

The Brexit Effect

Before the competition, some people wondered if Brexit would harm the UK’s chances. After all, Eurovision is one of the biggest celebrations of Europe (plus a couple of bits of Asia and Australia), and no-one likes a party pooper.

Well, bad news. We can’t blame Brexit for the fact we came third from the bottom.

Breakdown of each country’s score by points from EU and non-EU countries

The UK got 13 points from EU juries, and 10 points from non-EU juries. There are slightly more EU countries in Eurovision, so if you take this account our scores from both were very similar. We got an average of 0.53 points from EU countries, and 0.58 points from non-EU countries. The difference is so tiny it barely even matters.

Similarly, on the phone votes we got 15 points from EU viewers and 10 points from non-EU viewers. That’s an average of 0.60 votes from countries inside the EU and 0.58 from those outside. There was absolutely no Brexit effect.

Our entry, SuRie, suffered the horrible misfortune of having her song interrupted by a stage invader who snatched the microphone from her. Twitter opinion wasn’t sure whether this would hurt her final score, or help her. In the end, it’s not clear whether it had any effect either way – the points from the juries (who base their scores on the dress rehearsals, not the final performance) and the TV audience were very similar.

The results from the Commonwealth and the rest of the former British Empire weren’t much better. True, Ireland gave us 10 points in phone voting and Australia gave us 6, but Malta gave us just 1 point, and viewers in the former British territories of Cyprus and Israel didn’t give us anything at all (although at least the Israeli jury threw us a few points).

Perhaps we just have to face facts – our entry wasn’t that good.

Vote for your neighbour

Everyone knows about the regional voting effects at Eurovision. Countries tend to vote for their neighbours or those that they have a historical connection with – and, with the rise of phone voting, countries like Poland with large diaspora communities can pick up a lot of votes from countries where their citizens have gone to live.

This year, some of the usual bloc voting suspects were absent – Russia and Poland didn’t pass the semi-finals, no-one from the Caucasus qualified, and only two of the six eligible countries of the former Yugoslavia made it to the final – which opened some new opportunities.

To see which countries benefited most from bloc voting, I divided the countries into 11 regions: the Balkans, the Baltics, Benelux, British Isles, the Caucasus, Central Europe, Eastern Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean, the Nordic countries and Western Europe – plus Australia. You can debate which region some countries belong to (Wikipedia says Romania is Balkan but Moldova is not, so who am I to argue?) but with 43 countries competing it shouldn’t matter if one or two are miscategorised. I then added up the points each country won from each region, accounting for the fact that some regions are bigger than others, and used a statistical trick called the standard deviation to work out how evenly distributed the points were.

Surprising no-one, the country that benefited most turned out to be Serbia. Fully 67% of its votes (jury and phone combined) came from the Balkans, and in the phone voting (usually the most biased) it very nearly got a perfect score from every single ex-Yugoslav country – only Macedonia ruined it by giving just 10 points. Slovenia, the other former Yugoslav republic in the final, didn’t get a single phone vote anywhere outside the Balkans.

And which country had the widest appeal? Shockingly, the answer seems to be… Cyprus. Sure, they may have got a perfect score from Greece like they always do, but they also pulled in points from across Europe. In the Baltics, their worst region, they got an average of 6.7 points per country, while in the Caucasus, their best region, they got 14.3. There was no one region that they relied on, and this probably helped Cyprus fly up the charts, ending in second place. Israel, the eventual winners, also had a well balanced result, although the range of scores was a bit wider. They got just 5 points per country in the Baltics, but 17.5 in Eastern Europe and 18 from Australia.

So here’s a tip for any would-be winners – try to create a song that has broad appeal to pick up a few votes from everywhere, rather than focusing all your efforts on one set of voters.

Juries and phone voters

Eurovision fans debate what the best scoring system is. The juries have the advantage of being made up of musical professionals, so they’re more likely to vote based on the power of the song, not gimmicks like staging and sex appeal. On the other hand, the phone voting gives you a more accurate idea of actual public opinion – on a jury, one or two oddballs with a strange taste in music can totally change the result, but thousands of people vote by phone and text.

This year, as with previous years, the jury votes tended to be all over the place, while the phone votes were more focused. It was the phone votes that ultimately made Israel the winner – the juries placed them a distant third after Austria and Sweden. So, does that mean the audience made the correct decision while the juries proved to be out of touch, or does it mean the sensible jury picks were swamped by the public going crazy for a novelty act? The answer to that probably depends on your taste.

Back-pats, or back-stabbing?

As already mentioned, it’s not uncommon for countries to trade points. Greece and Cyprus regularly give each other 12 points, as do Belgium and the Netherlands. And sometimes countries fail to reciprocate, which can lead to bad feelings. I certainly got an earful from my Irish friends when, after Ireland gave the UK a respectable 6 jury points, the British jury didn’t give them a single point in return.

Who were the biggest vote traders? The answer may seem odd at first: it was Italy and Albania, who together gave each other a total of 36 points (Albania gave Italy a perfect 24, while Italy gave Albania 12 points in the phone voting). This isn’t as odd as it seems. Italy and Albania sit on opposite sides of the Adriatic Sea, but ferries between them only take a couple of hours, and there are over half a million Albanians living in Italy. It makes sense that they would share a taste in music.

Estonia and Lithuania – the bread in the Baltic sandwich – were a close second, trading 34 points between them, including a perfect 12 each in the phone votes. (Estonia also traded 24 points with Finland, another close neighbour and one that speaks a very similar language.) Much harder to explain is the fact that Czechia and Israel also exchanged 34 points. They aren’t neighbours, nor do they have a close relationship, so just what did they have in common besides good songs?

Meanwhile, spare a thought for poor Hungary. Both the Hungarian jury and the viewers at home gave top marks to Denmark’s entry, and what did they get in return? Not a sausage. Denmark gave Hungary precisely zero points in return for their 24.

Matrix of all the different competing countries, showing the total number of points they gave each other. Darker squares show bigger vote trades.

And a matrix of all the different competing countries, showing the difference between number of points they gave each other. Darker squares show bigger betrayals.

So, what is there to learn from all this? As much as people like to make fun of the regional voting and rivalries of Eurovision, a strong regional vote isn’t enough to win. You need to appeal to people across Europe – and especially the audience at home, whose phone votes are crucial. And no matter what, the UK won’t win.

Featured image: Eurovision/Andres Putting