Totally Frenched Out

From the blogger formerly known as Samdebretagne

Monday, June 11, 2012

Doing my civic duty

I went to vote for the French legislative elections yesterday afternoon, and got to talking to the lady verifying ID cards. She ended up inviting me to come back once the polls closed to help count the votes, and since I was home alone for the night, I decided to go for it. This process has a special name in French - "le dépouillement des votes".  As a random side note, whenever I hear "dépouillement", it always brings to mind the image of someone digging up a coffin!

But anyways, back to the story. At 7:55pm, I returned to the polling station along with 11 others and we waited patiently for instructions.  They had us sit down four to a table and then passed out two large pieces of paper.  Each paper had a list of each of the candidates and then lines where we could mark the number of votes they got. It was a very similar format to this one from the presidential election:
At the bottom of the page however was a list of seventeen reasons that a voted could be considered invalid - sort of the French equivalent to the mispunched chad. I got a bit nervous reading the list of them since there were so many and it was in French legalese, wondering how on Earth I would ever remember so many different things, but felt immediately better when the young girl next to me said "Whoa" after reading them too.

Looking around the room, there was a mix of all ages - though I would say it was skewed to the older and younger ages of the spectrum, without many middle-aged folks.  At my table, there was a retiree, myself and two students. I asked if the three others had done this before, but we were all newbies, so no one really knew what to expect. Looking at the voting box, the elderly gentleman said that it didn't look like there were many votes in there, and I said that I'd seen on the internet that only 21% of people had voted by 2pm.  One of the two young girls said that she'd heard that it was up to 60% by 6pm, but that it was still one of the lowest turnouts ever for a legislative election. 

Then the officials came around to explain how it worked. Each table would get an envelope with 100 votes and we were to count them and verify there really was 100 there (both times, we had 102 in our envelope). Then one person was charged with opening the envelope, the other had to read it out loud and then the remaining two each filled out one of the big sheets as the names were read. Once we finished our 100 and verified that both papers had matching vote numbers, they would bring another envelope.  This isn't my picture since I didn't dare bring my camera, but this is essentially what our table looked like (minus the folks standing around watching):

I offered to record the votes along with another one of the girls.  After the first 100, the other two asked if we wanted to switch, and I said no because I was worried I'd mispronounce some of the names because of my accent (there were some weird ones in there).  They said "What accent?" and I explained that I was born in the US. And then I wished I'd kept my mouth shut since I probably would have been able to remain the anonymous foreigner.

Part of me was nervous to participate in the counting, given the racist undertones of this election, and I wasn't quite sure what the others at the table would think about having a non-native French person helping count the votes. I had a little speech prepared in my head about why I wanted to become French and how I think voting is every citizen's duty, but none of them even seemed to wonder how I was able to vote here. Instead they were more interested in asking about where I came from and what I was doing in France.

And then it was back to counting. We also had to makes piles for each of the candidates so that they could be recounted later in case the two people logging the votes didn't end up with the same number:
Any invalid votes or empty envelopes had to be placed aside for a later count, at which time all four of us were required to sign them as proof that they were really empty. 

The officials walking around were all very friendly and I was able to ask several questions as the night went on.  One of the big differences between French and US elections is that in France, they announce the winner the minute the polls have closed.  I've always wondered how this was possible, especially now that I see how long it takes to count the votes (it took us a little over an hour to count our measly few). I was told it was because most polling stations in France close at 6pm, so the outside of Paris and a few other cities, all of the votes have been counted by the time 8pm rolls around.  That part I understand, but I still don't get how they can call it without having counted the votes in the capital and other major cities, especially given their large populations and the fact that the elections are often close (within a percent or two).  But yet every time they do manage to call it, without having hoards of people counting for recounts. 

Secondly, I asked how many people were registered at our "bureau de vote".  He replied that there were 1362 registered voters, and that out of those, 849 had voted, amounting to 62% of our neighborhood.  However they had only counted 846 envelopes, and they were hoping to recover the remaining three as the night went on (as a miscount in one of the envelopes of 100). 

Out of the 849 votes, 6 were invalid.  We had two of them at our table and they were both empty envelopes.  I've never really gotten the concept of a "vote blanc".  Like you got all the way down to the polling station, wait in line and then don't even have your vote counted towards anything.  I know it's a sort of way to "sending a message to the Man", but come on, if you do that, you can't really complain about the results of the election afterwards. I heard all kinds of ads on the radio this week encouraging people to vote and to "not let others decide for you", which is a statement I definitely agree with.

Okay back to the counting - very early on in the game, it was clear that the UMP and the PS were going to be the two going on to the next round.  But it was still fun to see them neck-in-neck as the counting went on, and in the end, we ended up with 348 votes for one and 337 for the other.  I'm not sure if I'm allowed to say which was for which though.  Most of the other candidates just got a handful of votes - the next highest number after those two was 37.  And in looking at the official election results online, the UMP and the PS are tied at 34.8% in the first round - so it looks like it will be another close one next Sunday!

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Blogger Gwan said...

Interesting stuff, embarrassingly enough I have no clue about this election, but of course I can't vote.

I'm jealous that they didn't pick up you're a foreigner, I should be so lucky! Although actually last week an old guy asked if I was from the South, I laughed and said "VERY far south!".

June 11, 2012 at 1:54 PM  
Blogger melinda said...

i dont understand that voting with an empty envelope thing either, but thats just what my daughters MIL did

June 11, 2012 at 2:44 PM  
Blogger corine said...

Great report Sam. I don't know which voting system is more reliable; manual or electronic. The French system seems so archaic though.

June 11, 2012 at 4:24 PM  
Blogger Canedolia said...

I find it really funny that they just asked you to do it on the day and you went along because you had nothing better to do. My parents have worked at the polling stations in the UK and it's a lot more informal than you would expect, but they do officially register to do it in advance.

I always thought the initial results they gave were based on exit polls and not on the real counts. But I also heard that there's this one town in France that, in the presidentials at least, always has exactly the same result as the national result, so the joke is that they could just get that one place to vote for everyone.

June 11, 2012 at 6:44 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

That's neat! I would have liked to do that. Anyway, if anyone gives you flak for being there, you are as French as they are.

I would have thought that they start counting before the polling closes, so that they have at least most of the votes counted before 8 pm.

Also, if it is really close between two candidates, do they re-count those ballots?

June 11, 2012 at 7:09 PM  
Blogger L said...

On the second round of the Presidential election I was listening to France Info, and a guest from one of the "audit" companies that prepares the estimations of the results was talking about how they calculate the results. From what I understood, they have pre-determined sample cities/towns where they either get the results around 7pm because the polling station closed at 6pm, or they do exit polling. Then they have proprietary algorithms that calculate what that means on a national level. The guy was talking about how they were a bit off for the first round of the Presidential elections, so they modified their algorithm. I guess they have a panel of towns that give results that represent the spectrum of French politics and then their algorithm does the rest to create national numbers.

June 11, 2012 at 7:45 PM  
Blogger Ksam said...

Megan - I don't think they recount since each vote is already counted twice. And nope, no counting before the polls close - even the ones who close at 6pm aren't allowed to say until 8pm who won, otherwise they could influence people in the big cities to go vote at the last minute.

L- I get that there are sample cities, but I just don't understand how that allows them to announce the final votes at 8pm. Especially since each region votes so differently. But I guess they know what they are doing, since they are usually right on!

June 11, 2012 at 8:26 PM  
Blogger Sara Louise said...

I know a couple of people that did a 'vote blanc' in the second round of the Presidential election and it bugged me so much.
And I'm with you, I find it amazing that they can announce the results of an election so early. I still don't fully understand how they can do it that quickly.

June 12, 2012 at 7:14 AM  
Blogger Veronica said...

That's really interesting -- I had no idea that was how it worked in cities. Intriguing that they just ask random voters to do the count! In our village, the mayor and two of his adjoints do the counting, and two conseillers municipaux do the tallying. Anyone can go along and watch the count. But then the maximum number of votes we can have is 218 :)

I don't see why people have a problem about voting blanc. It's a conscious choice, not a form of apathy. These people take the trouble to go to the polling station to express a view that none of the candidates represent them.

About the exit polls, they ask a (hopefully representative) sample of people coming out of the polling stations during the course of the day, as well as having the results from places where the polls close at 6. That's why they can figure out a provisional result before 8 pm.

What got me this time was the waste of paper! There have to be as many voting slips for each candidate (10 here) as there are voters. So there are a lot of left over slips at the end of the day -- roughly 90% of them. I've often wondered why they don't use a single ballot with a list, like they do in the UK.

June 12, 2012 at 8:07 AM  
Blogger Ksam said...

Veronica - I get that they do sampling and exit polls, but I don't get how that allows them to announce the official results at 8 and actually say THIS is who won, without having counted a large majority of the votes. But hey, they obviously have it figured out!

And I did find out that the envelopes are recycled for future years, but the voting papers are destroyed on site after the count (with the exception of the votes blancs/nuls, which get sent along with the results to the préfecture). I guess this method is trying to avoid the problems we see in the US with people marking the ballots wrong, or using the wrong pen, etc. You can't really mess up putting a ballot in an envelope (unless you do it on purpose by writing on it, etc).

June 12, 2012 at 8:22 AM  
Blogger Julie said...

I once again had a sad result from my village: 47% voted for the FN candidate despite the fact that the guy died last week.

June 12, 2012 at 8:56 AM  
Blogger Ksam said...

Oh wow Julie, that's crazy! I'm curious, how do the villagers treat you? Do they keep their distance or are you considered are acceptable because you're not one of "those foreigners"?

June 12, 2012 at 9:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this unique American experience in France! That's awesome that you can vote -- and I'm also envious that they didn't notice your accent! Bravo! :-) Sounds like you're doing well in France adapting and all. :)

June 12, 2012 at 10:40 AM  
Blogger The Paris Chronicles said...

This is a great post. I, too, have always wondered how in the world the elections could be tallied so rapidly, given this incredibly archaic system of's so much like a grammar school election! This method also is easy to contaminate--all it takes is for one polling location to want to see a certain candidate move forward--so I remain mystified as to why they don't put in electronic voting booths.

June 12, 2012 at 1:46 PM  
Blogger Julie said...

They accept me fine, I'm not one of "those foreigners", the sentence they always tell me. That saying always annoys me and I always answer by calling them hypocrites.

June 14, 2012 at 1:10 PM  
Blogger purejuice said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

June 20, 2012 at 2:08 AM  
Blogger purejuice said...

thanks for this, i dote on your accounts of Real Frenchie Life.

June 20, 2012 at 2:08 AM  

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