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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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Hollande's and Sarkozy's back pages of their 4-page campaign brochures received in the mail, along with most of the others' from the smaller parties. Hollande promises change. Sarkozy a strong France. Change won over strength.

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By law, each voting station must have the mayor present during the entire proceedings, acting as president of the "voting office", or the mayor can designate someone from their office or within the community. In embassies, the consul takes the place of the mayor. In addition, there must be at least two "assurers", who are designated by the candidates (parties), as well as someone acting as a secretary. So, there must be a minimum of four persons witnessing and processing the voters and their ballots. This is a minimum. Any candidate can put a representative at any voting station to witness the entire operation, including the counting of the ballots. In fact, in Beijing, I saw about 15-20 people watching the entire operation. Little chance of any shenanigans with so many eyeballs on the scene.

I went to the (brand new) French Embassy in Beijing to vote, about 20 minutes from where I live in the suburbs. Once you show your picture ID (they even accept expired passports and national ID cards, as long as the photo is your resemblance), you pass through embassy security and line up to vote in the consulate. It is a very sociable and light hearted atmosphere. Friends are saying hello, giving each other the famous French bises on the cheeks and warmer, longer hugs, depending on the relationship. A few have not seen each other in ages and catch up on news. Of course, people are texting and going online with their mobiles, or calmly reading ebooks.

There were two lines to queue up, A-M and N-Z. As you stand in line, 10 big color campaign posters of the candidates are hanging on the walls of the foyer. So you have this eerie feeling of these people watching you and reminding you, "Be careful who you vote for!", as you wait your turn. They are the same covers of the color brochures I received in the mail.


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The posters and brochure covers of the two leading presidential candidates. Is is just me, or does Hollande look like Droopy? I also find the psychology of Sarkozy not looking directly at his constituents interesting.


So, everything being described is doubled, with two urns, two sets of voting booths, etc. Thus, there were a minimum of eight witnesses, and by law, these are people of competing political interests. And on top of that, there were many witnesses observing to keep everybody honest.

For each urn, four people control the voting operation. The first person looks at your ID, finds you on the voting rolls, marks your name on the big list and puts a small piece of paper with the page number and line number inside your passport or with your national ID. The next step is to get your ballots.

Government printed ballots on low quality notebook paper, about the size of an index card, are laid out on a long table, one for each candidate. So, in the first round of the presidential election, the ballot table had 10 stacks of ballots, one for each candidate. There is also a stack of government printed envelopes, cerulean blue, with the state seal on the outside. Voters can take all ten (to be discreet) or can only pick up the ballot of the candidate they intend to vote for. Most voters choose the discreet option.


The paper ballots of the two front runners. The paper used is like the slick kind used to wrap dishes when moving.

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.

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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.

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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), Reflections in Sinoland -- Musings and Anecdotes from the Belly of (more...)

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