How Sensible is This? Election Day in France


I am writing this on Sunday March 14, the day of French regional elections, the equivalent of statewide elections in the US.

Yes, election day is on Sunday. It’s always on the same Sunday everywhere in France—a day most people don’t work or have to go to school.

To vote, you don’t need to register in advance. If you are a French citizen, when you turn 18 years old you are automatically registered. Normally you receive a card in the mail that you take to your assigned bureau de vote that identifies you as a voter. However, if you don’t receive a card, you simply go armed with your ID card or passport and voilà, you can vote. Yes, it’s true that you need to show identification to vote but nobody here seems to find that objectionable just as no one minds that everyone is required to carry a national identification card.

Not sure where your bureau de vote is? According to a radio report, a voter can simply go where he or she last voted. If you’re not on their list, they will direct you to the correct polling place. By the way, there are many polling places—mostly in schools—and there is rarely a wait to vote.

Elections are all done with paper ballots. The voter simply inserts the preprinted slip of paper marked with his or her choice into an envelope. You can even submit a blank slip to register a vote for “none of the above”. As a result of this very simple, some might say low tech system, there are no computer glitches. These paper ballots are counted using a tightly controlled system in each polling place and the nation-wide results known about an hour after the polls close.

In France, each election is usually for one particular governmental entity, so you vote for one thing only. You don’t get to vote for judges and propositions. How much simpler is this than our typical ballot?

In today’s election, voters will select their regional government. Each voter votes for a particular party’s list, not for individuals. This is the first round. The run-off will be next Sunday. As France has a multi-party system, only those lists receiving 10% of the vote in the first round in a particular region will move on to the run-off. However, between the two rounds, parties can form coalitions to increase their chances of winning.

Campaigning begins a month before the election, not years before, and consists primarily of speeches, meetings in local communities, and posters put up in assigned locations. No yard signs, no bumper stickers. It’s positively low key. While people have strong political opinions and are happy to share them with friends, they feel that one’s political positions are private and not something to advertise to the public at large. Most important, there is no political advertising at all—on radio, on television, or in the newspapers.

Of course, all is not perfect here when it comes to elections. There is concern about a low turnout, expected to be 50% of all eligible voters—still higher than in the US. Young people and those of lower incomes are less likely to vote and appear to be questioning the value of voting. But it would seem that there is a lot the US could learn from this sensible approach. Imagine trying to make voting as easy as possible and having a campaign that is reasonable in duration and in cost!


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