What America Can Learn From French Elections By Nathan Richmond
As the 2018 congressional midterm and 2020 presidential elections approach, Republicans, Democrats, and Independents can agree on one thing: American elections are a mess.
While we may disagree on which problems are the most serious and how to address the issues- voter fraud or vote suppression, popular vote vs. Electoral College results, foreign interference -it is worthwhile to consider some aspects of how others conduct their elections. France, for example, incorporates some practices that both the left and the right would like to see implemented in the US.
First, it is sometimes remarked about American elections that the ballot is so long and convoluted with many offices voted on simultaneously, and some candidates on multiple lines, that some voters literally have no idea who or what they are voting for. In France, elections are held for only one office at a time whether it is for President, Senate, National Assembly, regional government, local government, or the European Union. And elections always are held on a Sunday, when most people have a day off from work.
Second, unlike in the United States in which voters in only a few "swing states" decide the presidential election result, all votes in France's presidential election are meaningful. Presidents are directly elected by the majority of the voters. One solution would be to abolish the Electoral College and implement a direct voting system that would makes all votes meaningful, not just those in swing states.
It is unlikely that the Electoral College will be abolished in the U.S., however, because it favors rural (i.e. Republican) states. But the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC) initiative may be a way to circumvent the problem of the discrepancy between the Electoral College result and the popular vote total that resulted the candidate who lost the popular vote winning the presidential election in 2000 and in 2016. Thus far, 12 states have adopted the NPVIC.
Third, France does not have problems of vote suppression, voter fraud, or voting machines being hacked. The problem of vote suppression is widespread and well documented in the US. In France, voting registration is easily done in person, by mail, or online. And there are no voting machines sent to the wrong location, or kept in warehouses, or "malfunctioning", all of which are common voter suppression tactics.
France uses paper ballots which are hand-counted immediately when the polls are closed. The counting is an open process which may be observed by anyone who wishes to do so. Vote totals are announced immediately in local elections and displayed on television immediately when the polls close in national elections. The immediate results are based on statistical sampling.
This is not to say that paper ballots systems are never abused or problematic. There are videos of ballot box stuffing in Russia, for example, here. And the "Butterfly" paper ballots used in Florida in 2000 election image here confused voters and caused havoc in the presidential election resulting in an aborted effort to recount the votes. But this has not been a problem in France.
All voters in France must show a national identity card and a voter registration card to receive and cast a ballot. But voters can also cast a proxy vote for someone else, a friend or family member for example, who may unable to vote in their own polling place on election day for some reason such as being out of town. The proxy voter just needs to bring the other person's national identity and voter registration cards. There is a registry of voters at the polling stations so there is no opportunity for someone to vote and then try to let someone else vote by proxy for them.
And finally, France does not have the twin problems of candidates being allowed to spend unlimited amounts of money and the gerrymandering of election districts, both of which undermine democracy in the US. How these two issues are addressed in France will be the topic of a future post.
Nathan Richmond, Professor of Government at Utica College, reporting from France