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A Tale of Two Democracies: What It Is Like to Vote in the United States Compared to France?

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Once inside the private voting booths, the voter folds their chosen ballot in half, puts it in their small, greeting card-sized envelope and slips the envelop tongue inside the envelop, without using any glue, so it stays closed but can be easily opened when the ballots are counted. Inside the booth is a trash can where the voter can dispose of their unused ballots.

Once the envelop is prepared, you pass to a second recorder/witness who again checks your ID against the same voter roll and double checks that the first recorder got the voter name, ID, page and line number correct, using that slip of paper given before going into the booth. They announce to the urn manager "they are good to go". You then step up to the urn, the urn manager flips a spring loaded chute handle to open the slot, you drop your ballot-filled envelop in the big, clear, Plexiglas urn and watch it drop on top of all the other ballots in the box. The urn manager says loudly, for all the world to hear, "Sir, you have voted!" (Monsieur, vous avez vote!)

I think the transparent urns are a statement, a real symbol to the citizens that "our elections are truly free and fair!" I can only speculate they used glass before plastic was invented.

Then a fourth control, another witness, using the same voting roll, has a small, mask like template that they put over your page, and asks you to sign in the little box on your line. You cannot accidently sign in the wrong box (unless this controller makes a mistake, of course, but they've been told by two different people where to find your name, so I suspect it doesn't happen very often!) because the template only exposes your box to sign. Everybody politely says, "Thank you, good day," and moves on.

At the end of the day, the four members of the voting office and any and all candidate witnesses, who, based on what I saw in Beijing, there were quite a few, go to a room to count the votes. The transparent urns are placed on tables in the middle of the room so that anyone can circulate around them to witness the counting. The total envelop count is first verified against the number of signatures on the voter roll.

Then, for each urn, each candidate is to have two witnesses each. One opposing pair (left wing and right wing) verifies the voting roll and the other opposing pair, left wing-right wing witnesses the ballot count. The remaining candidate witnesses are free to circulate around the tables to verify, but law stipulates that a minimum of four persons are seated at each urn table to witness the ballot count, with an equal number of competing party members in the mix. Each envelop is opened, and one of the witnesses unfolds the ballot to read it and hands it to their competing party partner, who reads out loud the ballot's name. The other two competing witnesses each have the same ballot control sheet and upon hearing the name called out, mark their respective ballot tallies. Naturally, at the end of the day, these two ballot tally sheets need to be identical, or the count starts over!

Any irregular ballot is placed off to the side with its envelop attached, to be decided upon by the persons in attendance. Ballots do get disqualified: hand writing on the envelop or ballot, having more than one ballot in the envelop, voters trying to put their own ballot inside, obviously empty envelops, etc. In the second round of the French presidential election, there were two million disqualified ballots, which was taken as an indication of a certain level of dissatisfaction about the two finalists, at least for some citizens! But they showed up to voice their opinion to the princes of power about how they feel!

Once the two ballot tallies match up, the two competing controllers sign these registers. Then, with all witnesses on hand, a "Minutes of the Vote" is written up, with the results noted and everyone duly putting their signatures upon it.

Reflecting on the lengths the French go to in order to assure fair, open and transparent elections, the system is awfully fool proof. So, pretend you are a political party operative hired to steal an election in France. Where do you see the weak links?

Flashback to America"

Hanging chads, using the wrong kind of pencil, marking the wrong box, (rigged) electronic voting machines sold to sucker citizens by politically motivated CEOs, one party hacks disappearing with opaque urns or the voting software for hours on end? Handing over democracy's most precious right to Wall Street and political goons that Stalin or Hitler would be proud of? In France? Are you kidding? What I witnessed in Beijing is repeated thousands of times across France and around the world, using the same exact system, the same ballots, envelopes, transparent urns, voter rolls and double competing, open air, multi-witness counting procedures. It is controlled and duplicated at the federal level, 100% by the French government, managed by the mayors and witnessed by umpteen mutually suspicious political party representatives. And it is all paid for by French taxpayers.

This sense of probity extends beyond the urns. In France, no campaigning or advertising is allowed during the final 24 hours before the voting booths open up. This is a time for sober reflection and earnest discussions with those whom you respect, not last minute stadium appeals from wily hucksters. Exit polls are also forbidden to be released or discussed in the media, until all the voting booths around the world have finished voting. France extends to North and South America, the Pacific and the Indian Ocean, so this information has to wait a while on election day. However, this ban is getting harder to enforce, what with Twitter, blogs and Facebook.

Voter participation

An election cannot give a country a firm sense of direction if it has two or more national parties which merely have different names but are as alike in their principles and aims as two peas in the same pod . Franklin D. Roosevelt

I guess the MBA way to look at which system has the best performance is voter participation. In this year's presidential election, 80% of all French voters went through the urns to vote, which is impressive indeed. And no, not just in the first round when there were 10 different candidates. Eighty percent also voted when there were only Hollande on the left and Sarkozy on the right in the second round. Now that is jaw dropping! But when you think about it, it is not that surprising, since France got to choose between two very different political platforms about where to take the country for the next five years, as well as the two men are personally as different as day and night.

Unlike in America, one does not get the impression that these candidates are being bought like well trained, obedient show dogs, but truly stand for contrasting and honorable differences about what it means for French society, its economy, culture and international relations. France passes the MBA test because there is a real reason to vote one way or the other.

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Jeff is the author of 44 Days Backpacking in China: The Middle Kingdom in the 21st Century, with the United States, Europe and the Fate of the World in Its Looking Glass (2013), 44 Days Publishing, www.44days.net. He has an internationally (more...)

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Wow, what a difference between France and the Unit... by Jeff J. Brown on Tuesday, Jun 26, 2012 at 7:46:11 AM