Sunday, 10 June 2012

Voting à la française

I am in Paris for the first round of the legislative elections. A friend of mine was the returning officer for a local polling station and invited me to come along and observe the vote and the count. I'm glad I accepted; it was a fascinating experience.  While some aspects were very familiar, it seems that the French do things quite differently to the British.

Ballot papers
In the UK, you receive one ballot paper with the names of all the candidates, in alphabetical order by surname. You put a cross against your preferred candidate.  This is not what happens in France.  Instead, each candidate has a separate ballot paper.  The candidates print these themselves. They cannot be on coloured paper (although coloured ink is ok), and there are rules about the wording. Some candidates include a description of themselves (eg "incumbent"; "nurse"; "deputy-mayor"); some do not. The name of the reserve candidate (suppléant) must also be included.  If candidates do not provide any or enough ballot papers, voters can write the appropriate details onto a blank ballot paper and use that to cast their vote, ensuring that certain electoral regulations are followed to make the paper valid (such as including the full names of the candidate and suppléant). As you can imagine, this all results in a huge amount of wastage, as well as a possible advantage for candidates with beautifully printed colourful ballot papers versus those who didn't print anything.

Voting takes place in voting booths within polling stations, much like in the UK.  Polling stations are in public buildings such as schools.  Voters are supposed to take one ballot paper for each candidate. In this constituency, there were seventeen candidates so they decided simply to require that voters take papers for at least two candidates, to ensure some element of a secret ballot.  To cast a vote, the voter must place the ballot paper for their preferred candidate inside an envelope.  Placing more than one ballot paper spoils their vote, and leaving the envelope empty counts as a blank vote.  They then place the sealed envelope in the ballot box.

The count
Once the poll has closed, the ballot box is emptied. The number of envelopes is verified and the envelopes are then distributed to the counters, who are seated in groups of four.  Anyone who is eligible to vote may also take part in the count; they declare their wish to do so when they cast their vote.  In the UK, the count is undertaken by paid officials, whereas in France they are all volunteers.  Amazingly, more than 20 people turned up to count the ballots in this ward, which represented some 1700 registered voters.  Apparently this is quite normal.  I was most impressed with people's sense of civic duty.  They were reminded that tampering with the results would entail a five-year prison sentence and a fine, and their work in teams made it harder for any individual to commit electoral fraud.  The envelopes were emptied one by one, the result noted on score sheets by two different people (to ensure accuracy), and the ballot papers placed in piles.  Once all the envelopes were counted, each table of four people worked out their final tally.  These were then collated to produce an overall tally for the polling station.

Declaring the results
The final tally was communicated to the local mairie (town hall and mayor's office) over the phone.  Everyone in the room fell silent, so the phone call doubled up as the declaration of results within the room.  The mairie will then communicate the cumulative vote for the whole constituency to the interior ministry.
All the ballot papers - both those which were used for voting and those which were not used - were then discarded.  Brand new ballot papers will be issued for the second round of voting.  For spoiled or blank votes, there were 17 different categories indicating why the vote was invalid, and the envelopes for these votes had to be marked with the appropriate category and signed by the group of counters.  Only these envelopes, along with the score sheets, are sent on for official validation.
The whole process took about 75 minutes - remarkably quick, thanks to the large number of people taking part.

Overall, I am not convinced that individual ballot papers produced by candidates are efficient or fair.  Wealthier candidates have a clear advantage. To maintain perfect secrecy, voters must take one of every ballot paper in with them (17 in this case), only to discard all but one, resulting in possible confusion and a lot of wastage.  Otherwise, the secrecy of the ballot is somewhat compromised.  On the plus side, however, the count was open, transparent, rapid and effective.  All voters could get involved and an impressive number chose to do so.  In this respect, we could certainly learn from the French example.  Yes, London mayoral elections, I'm looking at you.

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