A Tale of Two Democracies:
What It Is Like to Vote in the United States Compared to France?
America is an outlier in the world of democracies when it comes to the structure and conduct of elections . Thomas E. Mann
How It All Happened
I recently voted in the French primary and runoff presidential races and just voted in the first and second rounds of France's legislative elections. I have been voting in France's elections since 1990. I have also faithfully voted in every presidential election in the United States, since 1972, as well as most federal legislative, state and local ones since that time, all the way down to the local school board level! Needless to say, I take my right to vote very, very seriously and look upon it as an anchor that helps ground civil society, at least societies that have a tradition of universal suffrage.
How is this possible? Well, it is because I am a member of that rarified population of world citizens who are dual nationals, carrying two passports. So, I have the truly unique perspective to compare the voting systems of two countries that take great pride in their sense of democracy and the processes of civil life. On the west side of the Atlantic, the United States, with its founders, freedom fighters, revolution and constitution; and on the opposite shores France with some of the greatest political and philosophical minds to ever put plume to paper, its revolution and Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. And can we not forget that is was France that gave the Statue of Liberty to the United States? Or that it was France, more than any other country that gave active support to the aforementioned freedom fighters and revolution. There is a common bond of ideals that these two countries have shared for over 200 years.
I most recently lived and worked in the United States 2001-2010 and went there from France, where I lived from 1997-2001. I have the bragging rights of being one of the passengers on that United Airlines flight that was the first one to reenter American airspace after September 11th, Paris to JFK on September 15th. And to complete the scenario, I lived in China 1990-1997 and moved back to Beijing in 2010, from the United States! Thus, I have the bizarre baseline of comparing these two proud democracies to a country that has a very different historical perspective on the meaning of freedom and suffrage. But China will have to wait for another time. And the fact that I left the United States in 1980 (I lived and worked in Africa and the Arab World 1980-1990), as Reagan was being elected (I campaigned hard for John Anderson!), and came back in 2001 to a radically transformed American society and economy, a country I could hardly recognize, was a shocking and sobering experience. Alas, that will have to wait for another article again.
What I have learned over the years of voting in France and the United States is that these two great republics have almost diametrically opposed visions of what the democratic process means, what it has to offer and how much it can truly represent the voices and desires of their peoples.
God Bless America's Corruption
It is enough that the people know there was an election. The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything . Joseph Stalin
For as long as American history has been written, voting corruption is a staple topic and is benignly accepted as part and parcel of the process, especially at the local and state level. Tammany Hall, the Chicago Machine, Texas heavyweights, good ol' boy politicians in the South and many other big city and state party operations have filled books about how elections are rigged and stolen. Americans love to engage in prideful one-upmanship with their neighboring states' citizens about how much "mo' better" one state is than the other for political corruption and rigged elections. Get a New Yorker, a Texan and an Illinoisan in a room together over a few beers and they'll be arm wrestling and breast beating in no time that their state is the most corrupt!
Stolen elections and local and state corruption are as much a part of America's political DNA as apple pie and Budweiser! And like torture is spun as "harsh interrogation techniques," and thousands of dead and maimed children, women and elderly as "collateral damage," political corruption in America's most hallowed of democracy's inalienable rights is simply called "irregularities." How quaint"
Who can forget the 50,000 ballots that magically turned up in Chicago precincts, to assure that John F. Kennedy took Illinois, its electoral votes and the presidential election from Richard Nixon? Or Robert Caro's majestic account in ''Means of Ascent,'' about how Lyndon Johnson used every dirty trick in the books to beat "Mr. Texas", Coke Stevenson, in his bid for a U.S. Senate seat (Coke was stealing votes too, he just go out stolen by LBJ!). These two crooked elections help change the course of American history and depending on your point of view, for better or for worse.
The Corruption Bar Is Raised for the 21st Century
One thing, however, is certain. Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year's presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation's confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law. John Paul Stevens
Then more recently, as power shifted from Democrats to Republicans at the state and national level, these classic American ballot stuffing practices, along with increasing technological opportunities, are being taken to frightening bold national levels. The two elections of George W. Bush have filled books, newspapers, magazines and websites with volumes of brazen theft in Florida and Ohio, as well as numerous issues in other states. With America's undemocratic electoral college, you only have to steal the election in a couple of key states in order to steal the whole country. Herewith is a stream of consciousness litany of America's recent election realities: