Voting in France: no sticker, but so much joie de vivre

July 07, 2021

A very informal commentary on how elections are done across the pond

At iCivics, we encourage educators to look globally when teaching students about elections. Seeing how things are done differently elsewhere may provide insight into our systems. Today, we explore France – my home nation.

France just had two simultaneous elections in June: the régionales and départementales. Basically, these elections decided who would lead France’s 13 metropolitan regions and 101 sub-regions (départements). Think of them as voting for your state representatives.

Now if you somehow already knew about France’s local elections, then congratulations: you are more informed than most French citizens! Regrettably, only 30% of registered voters showed up to the voting booths for these elections.*

I should know – I was there all day.

A month prior, I chose to volunteer as a poll worker. I had never yet voted in person in metropolitan France. So I yearned, as any civics geek would, to see the machinations of an election up close.

The contrast with American elections was nothing short of stark. This election, carried out in much the same way as any other local election here (i.e. presidential, mayoral), can be summed up like so: highly bureaucratic, solemn, and deliberately transparent in its design.

I want to highlight just a few of the procedural differences I picked up on. They may be small in size, but these differences reflect big on how France values representative government and the right to vote.

  • Sunday: Election Holy Day. Since 1905, France has famously separated church and state under its secular tradition of laïcité. But Sunday remains a holy day for voting. Unlike in America, where Election Day is always held on a Tuesday – somehow, both a non-holiday and a workday for almost everyone – voting on Sunday ensures a broad swath of the population has the time and freedom to access the polls. (As I write, there is some movement to make Election Day a federal holiday in America and ensure broader accessibility.)
  • What’s a Scantron? When I explained to my fellow poll workers how, in many U.S. states, one votes by filling out small bubbles on a black-and-white sheet with even smaller font, they looked at me with shock. Ah non, non, non, said the president of our poll site with raised eyebrows. (The French are mostly unfamiliar with Scantron technology, even in academic settings.) But the chairwoman’s reaction spoke to something more fundamental: the very act of selecting a candidate.
    Here, instead of filling out small bubbles on an instructions-loaded sheet, a voter first comes to a table that hosts envelopes and several piles of ballots– one pile for each candidate running (each ballot is further distinguished by a distinct color, with a high-res picture of its candidate). French law dictates that a voter must pick up one envelope and at least two different ballots – although most voters take all ballots on the table, by habit. Only then do they go into the voting booth, close the curtain, and insert the ballot of their choice in the envelope. The envelope is then sealed before exiting the booth. This entire process is designed to make it easy in selecting a candidate, to reduce mistakes during the counting of votes later, and to preserve the secrecy of the vote. By contrast, when I voted as a Massachusetts resident in 2016, I distinctly recall there being no curtain to block against any potential wandering eyes. Personally, I felt more gratified handing in a sealed envelope over a visible-to-all bubble sheet – Oh the tantalizing mystery of what lies inside!
  • The Voting Urn. Perhaps the starkest symbol of transparency in French elections is our voting urn itself: a large and transparent box, locked before the day even begins by two different keys (themselves, secured by two different election officials in the room). The only way to insert a ballot into the urn is to have a poll worker – such as yours truly – pull a lever that opens a slit at the top, and having only the voter directly insert their sealed envelope inside. Once the ballot falls into the see-through box, the contraption is closed off again and a mechanical “counter” increases the vote tally by 1 (one of the many safeguards put in place to count the votes with precision). This box was visual proof that my vote was processed and will be counted as it swims anonymously in this potpourri of votes.
    I suspect most French voters do not think twice about this peculiar box. But I noticed it right away after voting in America. In Massachusetts, my Scantron-like ballot was processed by – what else? – a Scantron-like machine. My vote got swallowed up unceremoniously by an indifferent robot. Where did my ballot go?” I wondered back then. Deep inside its black plastic tummy, I assumed – I could not see through its walls. In Oregon, where I now am registered to vote, every one must send in their vote by mail (using the fun bubble sheet, of course). And while Oregon has one of the highest voting rates in the country, I still wonder: where does my ballot go exactly? There is something to be said about visually seeing where your ballot goes once it is handed in. Transparency inspires confidence.
  • A voté! I will confess my sorrow upon learning that France does not hand out “I voted!” stickers once the deed is done. The sticker is a delightful, if quirky, emblem that is America’s to keep, and show off. But France does have something to show. The very moment that the ballot enters the transparent urn, the poll worker – yep, me again – declares in a most dignified voice: a voté! (Translation: has voted!) The phrase becomes the leitmotif for the day. A voté! I heard it continuously, echoing across the small non-air-conditioned room on this hot summer day. A voté! It is an oral and solemn confirmation that your vote has been recorded. And this declaration, a long-standing tradition, makes sense in a nation where voting can only occur in person. France expects its citizens to manifest themselves, to show up. (If you cannot come to polls on Election Day, for any variety of reasons – say a disability, being out of country, or anticipated laziness – you can easily complete a procuration: the action of naming the person of your choice to show up in your stead, and vote. The entire process is easy and can now be done online in less than 5 minutes. I tried it myself.) A voté!
  • Stamping the electoral card. Finally, before a voter leaves the voting site, he or she hands in their pale-purple carte éléctorale to be stamped for personal record-keeping. This electoral card is easily recognizable and distributed to every registered citizen. It’s like a passport, but for voting. It carries identifying information, the address of your voting site (quite useful), a history of past votes, and even a bar code. A voter hands in their card to get the voting date stamped inside. The funny thing is, voters don’t need to get their card stamped. Most forget to even ask. So we offer it for them. And it is at this exact moment – a quintessentially French moment, where for centuries, my people have felt the urge to stamp things that do not, in fact, need to be stamped – that voters get the most delight. That date-stamp produced a smile in almost every voter I met that day – a certain je ne sais quoi in their gaze. For, at any moment, a voter knows they can open their carte éléctorale and track their past votes – their involvement in our representative democracy. OK granted, it’s no sticker... but a stamp does stick with you longer.

Sometimes, it takes being elsewhere to ponder how things are done back home. I suspect that your own voting experience will differ from mine. Elections in America vary wildly, depending on the state. That, too, is by design.

iCivics makes teaching your students about U.S. elections easy. Our election resources include Cast Your Vote, an online game in which your students practice being an informed voter in a fictional local election, the State of Election Laws Infographic, which highlights the diversity of laws throughout the country, and the Students Power Elections guide, which encourages students to research their local elections and ways to get involved in movements and ideas they are passionate about.

*The causes for the low turnout are abundant arguably a mix of the grueling toll of this pandemic on French society; a vast misunderstanding of what France’s regions/sub-regions actually do and their political importance in our daily lives; a larger sense of apathy and cynicism for our current political systems; oh, and it’s vacation here, too, which we French take all too seriously.

Curiously, I have yet to hear anyone address the state of French civic education as a plausible culprit for the low turnout. I went through it myself here in public school. Civics classes were rare (once a month) and thoroughly drab. I would have relished a French iCiviques.

Written by Gabriel Neher

Gabriel Neher has been a Grant Writer at iCivics since 2015. He oversees much of iCivics’ institutional fundraising, with a focus on foundation relationships. Gabriel graduated from Northeastern University in 2015 with a degree in psychology and criminal justice. He is a dual national of both the United States and France, where he now lives.