“Aux urnes, citoyens!” • “To the ballot boxes, citizens!”

Today, like some kind of United Nations election observer (or a self-appointed election journalist for the online media), I witnessed my first foreign election in progress. April 22, 2012 : It’s the first round of the French presidential elections, and I tagged along as Michel went to his polling place and exercised his franchise. It was a proud moment for him and for me. It was even memorialized on Facebook. Here’s the picture …

“Michel Denis Pouradier … a voté.” • “Michel Denis Pouradier … has voted.” © 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

As an American — coming from a tradition that likes to view of itself as the father (even the guarantor) of democracy around the world — I found it very intriguing to watch the voting process here. As in America, the voting system differs from town to town, but here in La Courneuve, they still use paper ballots and ballot boxes (“urnes“). That struck me as both surprisingly outmoded and, somehow, so much more legitimate than pressing buttons on a touchscreen and watching your vote disappear into the ether. Watching Michel vote brought to mind images of elections in less developed countries that we Americans often see on our evening news, but also memories of my childhood, accompanying my parents to their polling place in rural South Carolina where, after having voted, they dropped their ballots in a little locked wooden box with a slot in the top. Nostalgia.

The “ballot” for one of Michel’s short-list candidates that he ended up not putting in his envelope. © 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

Another interesting difference for me is that you don’t actually mark your ballot. When you arrive, you go to a table where the “ballots” of each candidate are arranged in neat little piles. You select one, two, three … ten, or none, and go into the voting booth with a little blue envelope. That’s when you choose the candidate for whom you will cast your vote. If you want that vote to count, you have to place the candidate’s ballot in the envelope, without altering it in any way. Placing more than one candidate’s ballot in the envelope, placing no ballot in the envelope, or placing an altered ballot in the envelope invalidates the vote. No problems with bubbles not completely filled in or hanging chads here!

Then you exit the booth and approach the ballot box. You give your name and identification, and a poll worker verifies your right to vote and reads your name aloud. You drop your ballot into the box, the poll worker announces “… a voté” (“… has voted”), and you sign the register of electors. It’s an interesting system for an American observer and, I must say, one that made me so proud of democracy. There’s something really powerful in hearing that announcement, as you drop your ballot in the box, that you have done your civic duty.

Outside our polling place in La Courneuve. © 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

And now, we wait. When the polls close this evening, the count will be begin and we’ll watch the results pour in. It’s an exciting civics lesson for this little American expat.

Vive la démocratie !

P.S. — An expat friend of mine pondered why the French vote on Sundays, or better yet why we Americans vote on Tuesdays. The answer to Sunday voting seems pretty straightforward; it’s the day when the majority of French citizens don’t work, so it’s easiest to vote. Makes sense, right? After all, we all know how difficult it can be to make it to your polling place on a Tuesday when you’re working 8 … 9 … 10-hour days. So, why do Americans vote on Tuesdays? It can be traced back to an 1845 law passed by Congress that sought to fix our elections on the most convenient day for our then agrarian society. Back then, citizens had to travel by horse and buggy to a county seat to cast their votes, and voting could take up to two days: a day to get there and a day to get back home. Since Congress very well couldn’t adopt a law interfering with observance of the Christian sabbath and farmers had to be home in time for market day on Wednesday, that left Monday and Tuesday as the first available days during the week. I guess they chose Tuesday in case your buggy got stuck in the mud or broke a wheel and you got to town late on Monday evening. Check out this humorous video for the story:

© 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

6 thoughts on ““Aux urnes, citoyens!” • “To the ballot boxes, citizens!”

  1. That’s really cute “a vote!”. My french husband said they do the exact same process in school to vote for the class president and that’s how they learn how to vote as grown-ups

  2. I don’t have the right to vote in France, but I did accompany a friend to the ballot box this morning. I like the fact that it’s so ceremonial, especially the sound of that thing they hammer down before saying “a voté”.

    But what always amazes me is the waste of paper. The last time I voted was in 1995 for the Quebec referendum about independence. All we did was check “oui” or ”non” on a small piece of paper. No envelopes needed!

  3. Comme c’est curieux! But how do the poll workers verify that one has only put one name [or several feuilles with the same name] in the urne? Honor system or do they peek inside the envelope? And if there are several races, say national, provincial and municipal, does each one have a separate urne? And how do they securely dispose of any piles of unused ballots? Tant de questions! C’est compliqué, tout ca!

    1. Tout à fait ! I don’t know how they do it for elections with multiple races, so that’s a very good question. My understanding is that votes are only counted if the envelope has only ONE name inside. I guess that eliminates the problem of possible voter fraud with multiple pieces of paper. One envelope for each voter + voter verification and signature on the voter roll when it’s dropped in the urn + it only counts if you did it correctly. I guess it doesn’t really matter what happens with all of the pieces of paper with candidates’ names on them … except from an environmental perspective!

      I guess I should look into that question about elections with multiple races. I do wonder how they manage that. That would be complicated!

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