Voting à la Française

Nicolas Sarkozy just won the French Presidential Elections by a sizeable margin. In case my fellow US liberals are worried about a “Conservative” victory in Europe, it’s important to note that the US Republican Party and the French UMP are by no means the same. Sarkozy used his first speaking opportunity to declare France “a friend of the United States, but friends can think differently.” He then declared that the United States should “take the lead in the fight against global warming.” So yeah, not exactly a Bushie.

As a dual French/American citizen, I have the rare honor of being eligible to vote in both countries. I did not exercise my right to vote in France in the disastrous 2002 election, where the extreme-right candidate made it to the second round. I was walking around Manhattan on a sunny Sunday afternoon when I overhead the news from a fellow Frenchman screaming on his cell phone “What? Are you serious? Le Pen in the second round? That’s tragic! That’s awful!” I felt immense shame that day that I had not voted and that, in some small way, people like me had contributed to this sad result. (Of course, Le Pen was thankfully rejected in the second round.) I decided, right there and then, that I would do everything in my power to vote in every election where I am eligible.

And so this year, I registered with the French Consulate in Boston. Offshore voters were asked to vote the day before the general election in mainland France, so that people in earlier timezones would feel that their vote counted, instead of seeing the results announced while they were still voting: French exit polls are obscenely precise, often giving predictions within 0.1-0.2% of the final outcome, and they are announced at 8pm French time, as soon as the mainland polls close.

French elections generally require two rounds. If no candidate has an absolute majority in the first round, the top two move on to the second round, two weeks later. Generally, the top losers from the first round give “indications” to their electors as to whom they should pick for the second round, though of course these are not always followed. Each round of voting takes all day on a Sunday. For the first round, I arrived at a Cambridge high school gymnasium at 3pm on Saturday April 21st. There was a noticeable crowd of people, though no long wait. My parents in San Francisco, on the other hand, had to wait for more than 2 hours. I guess the French prefer the West Coast, but there are still enough in Boston to justify a large precinct.

  1. I presented my French passport (my French national ID card would have done just fine, too, but nothing else) at the check-in desk, where I was handed an official ballot envelope.
  2. I was then directed to the next table, where 10 piles of small index-card-size pieces of paper were lined up, one for each candidate. Each piece of paper simply displays the candidate’s name in big block letters, e.g. “Ségolène Royal.” The question is implicit, and there is only one. I was instructed to take “at least two” pieces of paper and proceed to the isolation booth. I took 6, for good measure, including all top three candidates, Sarkozy, Royal, and Bayrou, but specifically shunning the two extreme-right candidates.
  3. Inside the isolation booth, I “destroyed” the 5 I didn’t want to vote for by ripping them up and dropping them into the provided trash can, already half full of other discarded ballots. I peeked on either side of the isolation booth, and noticed to my great satisfaction that I could not see my neighbors’ trash cans, though I suppose I might have been able to gather information on how the last user of my isolation booth voted. I sealed my envelope, and proceeded to the check-out desk.
  4. At the check-out desk, I was asked for my passport again, and, once my name was confirmed on the list, the entry slot of a clear plastic ballot box was made available to me. I dropped my envelope in the slot, at which point the slot was immediately covered up by an official, and the three officials at the table declared, in sync and loudly enough for everyone to hear, “Monsieur Benjamin Adida… a voté!” (has voted)
  5. I signed my name on the check-out list.

Unfortunately, I could not wait around to observe the counting, but I am told that anyone is allowed to stay and watch. The counting process is straight-forward: all envelopes are opened, and piles of candidate ballots are made. The piles are counted and re-counted for accuracy, and the result for the precinct is announced and reported. The process is extremely quick, as there is very little ambiguity. There is, of course, always a strong risk of ballot stuffing, simply by throwing in a few extra ballot sheets from the check-in pile, though there is, I am told, a rather rigorous process to ensure that this doesn’t happen.

Interestingly, I was not available in Boston for the second round, and so I asked if I could vote absentee or at some other precinct. It turns out, there isn’t really absentee voting in France. Instead, there is a “vote by proxy,” where you can give someone you trust the right to vote on your behalf. Except I know of no other French voter in Boston, and all consulate employees were already maxed out, as any voter can only proxy two others. In the end, after calling and begging the Consulate in every possible way, I was unable to vote in the second round. I can’t say the Consulate did everything it could to help me, but I also know that they were extremely overwhelmed with an unprecedented number of offshore voters (1 million) and an extremely high turnout rate (85%). I also can’t really complain about the system being unoptimized for someone who has to relocate between the first and second rounds, like I did. Setting up an election is hard, and my case must be extremely rare.

I’m a bit surprised by the level of coercion that’s possible, especially in the first round. If you know someone is likely to vote for a candidate, you can just pay them to make sure they do not pick up that candidate’s pre-printed ballot. The second round is different, as there are only two choices and you must take them both. You might also be able to coerce a voter by asking him to bring back a sheet for every other candidate, though a crafty voter might be able to take two sheets for a given candidate. And then there’s the whole issue of being able to give your right to vote to someone else. The coercibility properties of the system could use a bit of review.

On the plus side, voting is on a Sunday, everyone knows it’s election day, there’s plenty of personnel to help, and the voting process is extremely simple.

One final note: a good number of precincts tested electronic voting machines, and there were apparently “no problems” in the second round (ahem, how can they possibly know?). The only good justification I can possibly think of for this is if these machines provide cryptographic verification, but sadly and unsurprisingly, they do not. So what’s the point? There’s only one question, one official language, and the paper-based process is extremely simple. Moving to an electronic machine without cryptographic verification is a terrible idea that provides no benefit. Was someone complaining about the paper system not working or being confusing?

On the flip side, since the voting process is so simple (one question, no write-ins!), and the standards so tightly and centrally controlled, maybe France is the ultimate place to prototype cryptographic receipts for voting…



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3 responses to “Voting à la Française”

  1. Claire Avatar

    I have an idea – test out e-voting in Nigeria! Given how the “elections” went down there three weeks ago, there’s really nothing to lose.

  2. joe Avatar

    I also was puzzled by the French move to go to e-voting. The only think I can think of is accessibility or for illiterate voters. If you ever hear anything else, please let us know!

  3. Pierre Adida Avatar
    Pierre Adida


    Very clearly and accurately described. In France, I don’t think there is a big risk of fraud with e-voting, because it’s not in the mind of people. What is more concerning is the way the losing party is discrediting the winner through very nasty personal attacks, showing an obvious lack of sense of democracy and lack of respect for the majority of voters who have voted for the winner. In that case, the pro socialists voters consider as a disaster the last sunday result. What an arrogance and narrow minded attitude!! 53% of the voters out of 85% turnout are considered as disastrous for the country… Socialists should change to another country and give France a chance to turnaround

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