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 …
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.
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.
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