By Jeff Brown
Simulpost with OpedNews, a fraternal site
Very few world citizens get to vote for president and legislators in two different countries, but this author does. Comparing the voting and election systems in United States and France can lead the reader to only one shocking conclusion…”
America is an outlier in the world of democracies when it comes to the structure and conduct of elections. Thomas E. Mann
How It All Happened
I recently voted in the French primary and runoff presidential races and just voted in the first and second rounds of France’s legislative elections. I have been voting in France’s elections since 1990. I have also faithfully voted in every presidential election in the United States, since 1972, as well as most federal legislative, state and local ones since that time, all the way down to the local school board level! Needless to say, I take my right to vote very, very seriously and look upon it as an anchor that helps ground civil society, at least societies that have a tradition of universal suffrage.
How is this possible? Well, it is because I am a member of that rarified population of world citizens who are dual nationals, carrying two passports. So, I have the truly unique perspective to compare the voting systems of two countries that take great pride in their sense of democracy and the processes of civil life. On the west side of the Atlantic, the United States, with its founders, freedom fighters, revolution and constitution; and on the opposite shores France with some of the greatest political and philosophical minds to ever put plume to paper, its revolution and Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. And can we not forget that is was France that gave the Statue of Liberty to the United States? Or that it was France, more than any other country that gave active support to the aforementioned freedom fighters and revolution. There is a common bond of ideals that these two countries have shared for over 200 years.
I most recently lived and worked in the United States 2001-2010 and went there from France, where I lived from 1997-2001. I have the bragging rights of being one of the passengers on that United Airlines flight that was the first one to reenter American airspace after September 11th, Paris to JFK on September 15th. And to complete the scenario, I lived in China 1990-1997 and moved back to Beijing in 2010, from the United States! Thus, I have the bizarre baseline of comparing these two proud democracies to a country that has a very different historical perspective on the meaning of freedom and suffrage. But China will have to wait for another time. And the fact that I left the United States in 1980 (I lived and worked in Africa and the Arab World 1980-1990), as Reagan was being elected (I campaigned hard for John Anderson!), and came back in 2001 to a radically transformed American society and economy, a country I could hardly recognize, was a shocking and sobering experience. Alas, that will have to wait for another article again.
What I have learned over the years of voting in France and the United States is that these two great republics have almost diametrically opposed visions of what the democratic process means, what it has to offer and how much it can truly represent the voices and desires of their peoples.
God Bless America’s Corruption
It is enough that the people know there was an election. The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything . Joseph Stalin
For as long as American history has been written, voting corruption is a staple topic and is benignly accepted as part and parcel of the process, especially at the local and state level. Tammany Hall, the Chicago Machine, Texas heavyweights, good ol’ boy politicians in the South and many other big city and state party operations have filled books about how elections are rigged and stolen. Americans love to engage in prideful one-upmanship with their neighboring states’ citizens about how much “mo’ better” one state is than the other for political corruption and rigged elections. Get a New Yorker, a Texan and an Illinoisan in a room together over a few beers and they’ll be arm wrestling and breast beating in no time that their state is the most corrupt!
Stolen elections and local and state corruption are as much a part of America’s political DNA as apple pie and Budweiser! And like torture is spun as “harsh interrogation techniques,” and thousands of dead and maimed children, women and elderly as “collateral damage,” political corruption in America’s most hallowed of democracy’s inalienable rights is simply called “irregularities.” How quaint”
Who can forget the 50,000 ballots that magically turned up in Chicago precincts, to assure that John F. Kennedy took Illinois, its electoral votes and the presidential election from Richard Nixon? Or Robert Caro’s majestic account in ”Means of Ascent,” about how Lyndon Johnson used every dirty trick in the books to beat “Mr. Texas”, Coke Stevenson, in his bid for a U.S. Senate seat (Coke was stealing votes too, he just go out stolen by LBJ!). These two crooked elections help change the course of American history and depending on your point of view, for better or for worse.
The Corruption Bar Is Raised for the 21st Century
One thing, however, is certain. Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law. John Paul Stevens
Then more recently, as power shifted from Democrats to Republicans at the state and national level, these classic American ballot stuffing practices, along with increasing technological opportunities, are being taken to frightening bold national levels. The two elections of George W. Bush have filled books, newspapers, magazines and websites with volumes of brazen theft in Florida and Ohio, as well as numerous issues in other states. With America’s undemocratic electoral college, you only have to steal the election in a couple of key states in order to steal the whole country. Herewith is a stream of consciousness litany of America’s recent election realities:
Bush lost the 2000 election by 500,000 votes and was royally appointed sovereign by the Supreme Court; hanging chads and confusing columns; voter registrations from poor and minority neighborhoods dumped in the incinerator by the thousands, robocalls to citizens in these same neighborhoods to intimidate or deceive them into not voting; making sure that these “undesirable” precincts have fewer voting machines and the oldest and most broken down ones, to increase the time to wait to vote, thus sending thousands home in frustration without voting; voting on computers and seeing the opposing name of the person they voted for instead of the candidate they desired; millions of American citizens disenfranchised using all kinds of dirty tricks to keep people from voting, including caging, purging and medieval laws persecuting felons, and in more and more states, even those who have misdemeanors (see below!); hard drives with vote counts on them going missing for hours on end, voting software so easily hackable that a high kid on their PC could easily change the results to whatever they wanted with a few key strokes and some spare time; opaque ballots boxes stored where only (the currently ascendant) Republican operatives could enter”I’m already out of breath! Oh, and I forgot: photo IDs now being required, knowing full well that it is the poorest and minorities who have the highest rate of NOT having a photo ID in the US.
A quick survey of today’s headlines shows that many of these corrupt practices are still being openly engaged in and being universally ignored by America’s citizens. It is all so diabolical and downright disgusting, yet Americans seem to love it and revel in all this anti-democracy dirt.
Two Sides of the Same Trick Coin
We have a presidential election coming up. And I think the big problem, of course, is that someone will win. Barry Crimmins
I bring up Democratic election malfeasance from a generation or two ago for a reason. This is not a case where the Republicans are uniquely evil and the Democrats saints. It is a case of spoils to the victor. In war, the victor publically gets treaty reparations and new national boundaries. But behind this veneer are the spoils of rape, plunder and pillage. Ditto the political cycles we live through.
In politics, the victors publically get to pass laws and deciding on enforcing or not enforcing laws and regulations on the books. Behind closed doors, the victors get to draw up Picassan-Munchean gerrymandered voting districts and coveting all those stuffed ballot boxes.
From 1880-1930, Republicans were King on the Hill and plundered the country and its resources (as they are wont to do), as well as corrupting the election process during the Gilded Age. While pillaging America’s resources, they used the raw power of money to buy judges, congressmen, the White House and state governments like so many buckets of minnows and jars of chad to be fed to their mako shark owners.
This ascendancy goes in cycles. Democrats took all this to heart and when they were ascendant from the 1930s to the 1970s, adapted these methods of corruption to their strengths. New Deal Democrats at the state and local level simply paid people to vote for like-minded judges and politicians, who in turn made sure that contracts, construction and employment, with the requisite kickbacks, fueled the corruption. When they couldn’t buy the votes, well, it was just a simple matter of stuffing those opaque urns with ballots.
This cycle of ascendancy changed sides in 1980, as Reagan Republicans seized control of America’s political process. During this cycle, Reagan’s Republicans took to heart their brethren’s dominance during the two generations of the Gilded Age, as well as the amazingly successful methods of Democrat’s local and state political machines for the two generations of the New Deal. What has happened is truly frightening. Reagan’s Republicans have mutated and metastasized into an aggressive, malignant political tumor that is in the process of consuming America’s electoral system.
21st century Republicans are buying lapdog politicians in state governments, US congress, the Senate, the White House and the Supremes, just as happened during the Gilded Age. Then, they have flipped the New Deal Democrats modus operandi on it end. If you can’t buy the needed votes, then just purge and disenfranchise your enemies en masse from the voting rolls!
Let’s Get to the Really Bizarre Stuff
Government is a broker in pillage, and every election is sort of an advance auction sale of stolen goods . Henry Louis Mencken
On top of all this historical and ongoing corruption in America’s voting booths, Americans accept with pride and a wry smile the corruption of gerrymandering. This uniquely American practice is another amazing anti-democracy tool used by the reigning party in power and when explained to people outside the United States, elicits reactions of scorn and embarrassment for their American friends.
Ditto the electoral college. The United States is the only major democracy that I know of whose president is not elected by the vote of the people. Again, non-Americans are shocked that such a system is tolerated in a modern, “democratic” society.
And how to explain Washington, DC’s citizens, who have no real representation in America’s Congress and Senate? Never mind that WDC has more American citizens than Wyoming and almost as many as Vermont. The fact that WDC is over 50% black may have nothing to do with it, but I bet all the senators from the South, Midwest and Rockies are keeping count! Again, non-Americans are speechless when they learn that 600,000 US citizens have no democratic voice in the legislative process.
And then there is the question of which day of the week to vote. America, for arcane 18th century practical reasons, votes on Tuesdays, a working and school day for the vast majority of its citizens. Gotta go to work, go to school, cook dinner, clean the house AND vote! A few countries also vote on a weekday (Canada, UK, Norway, Netherlands, Denmark and Ireland). But the large majority of democracies vote over their weekend, when people and their families have the freest time to go vote. France votes on Sundays, the day of rest for the entire nation, so its citizens have all day to go to the polls and still have time for a picnic!
Is all this democratic? No. Is it fair? No. Is it good for the vast majority of America’s citizens? No. Is it dog-eat-dog Randian libertarianism? We’re getting warmer. Is it banana republic foibles, a Peter Faulk-Alan Arkin movie script writ large? I’ll let you be the judge after reading the rest of this article.
How It’s Done Across the Big Pond
The United States brags about its political system, but the President says one thing during the election, something else when he takes office, something else at midterm and something else when he leaves . Deng Xiaoping
Now that we have had a chance to review America’s voting history, trends and colorful highlights, how do elections in another great democracy, France, take place? You remember France, right? Freedom fries, frogs, being steadfastly against NATO for two generations, refusing to aid the US in its invasion and occupation of Iraq, American envy that France gets 80% of its electricity from nuclear power and France having the (now second best, after China) best high speed rail system on the planet; oh yeah, I almost forgot, it was the French who developed and pushed for worldwide adoption of the Système International (metric), which has pretty much isolated America’s 5% of the world’s population against the rest of the 95% who live by it (OK, the English cannot quit using their “stones”!).
After studying the rest of this article, I think you will agree that these two democratic countries’ visions on universal suffrage are like night and day: exclusion against inclusion, fear vs. confidence, electoral Twiddle Dee and Twiddle Dum against a broad spectrum of electoral choice and debate, corrupt vs. clean voting systems, roadblocks vs. convenience and elections bought like show hogs at auction against a fairly level financial electoral playing field.
My personal experiences and this study make a laughable mockery of some “democracy” country rankings. After all, universal suffrage is the bedrock and fertile soil in which the roots of democracy are so firmly anchored. A good example is www.nationmaster.com , which ranks the US #6 and France #28 in electoral freedom! What solar system are they living in to make such ridiculous rankings?
France’s Electoral Voting System
We always want the best man to win an election. Unfortunately, he never runs. Will Rogers
Prisoners and Felons
In France, the judge includes in the sentencing whether or not the convicted person loses their right to vote. For the 2012 presidential elections, France had a total of about 67,000 in jail. Out of these 67,000 prisoners, only about 15,900 have lost their right to vote, leaving about 51,000 detainees who can vote. Those who do so vote absentee by registering in the location of their prison. While 80% of the French voted in this year’s presidential election, less than 6% (about 2,500) of these eligible convicts actually voted. In 2007, a government decree was issued stating that prisoners had the right to leave prison to go vote. This became a culture war cudgel for the far right wing in France, but permission must be given by the warden on a case by case basis, and its use is very limited.
Only two states, Vermont and Maine, allow prisoners to vote, like France. In 13 states, felons can lose their right to vote for life. Or, they cannot vote if they are on probation or parole. Ten US states even restrict the voting rights of some people convicted of a misdemeanor! With 3.1% of its adult population in prison, on parole or probation (1 in 31, or 7.3 million total, by far the highest in the world), this is a huge number of citizens who are deprived of one of democracy’s fundamental rights.
With blacks and Hispanics being locked up at twice the rate as whites, and with the vast majority of people in the maw of Wall Street’s prison industrial complex being poor, it is hard to escape the impression that the United States has found a very effective system to disenfranchise millions of its citizens that the princes of power do not want voting against them.
VOTE, n. The instrument and symbol of a freeman’s power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country . Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary.
While the thought of non-citizen permanent residents voting in the United States would send Fox News, Tea Baggers and Republicans into foam-at-the-mouth seizures, France has made efforts for this class of tax paying people to vote in municipal (local) elections. According to recent surveys, the majority of French support this right for foreign residents.
The movement started in 1985. The town of Mons-en-Baroeul, near Lille was the first municipality to establish an associated (shadow) city council of foreign residents. European integration led to a directive in 1994 to allow all European citizens to be able to vote in local and pan-European elections. And that is the case today. So, a German living in Lisbon and a Greek working in London have the automatic right to vote in all local elections where they reside. Naturally, they can continue to vote in all the federal elections in the country of their nationality.
Even though the majority of French are for allowing non-EU foreigners to vote in local elections, the debate between left and right continues to rage. In December, 2011, the French Senate passed a much heated resolution in support of this cause. In the meantime, 10 cities, including big ones like Paris, Toulouse and Lille have set up shadow city councils composed of non-EU foreign residents, so they can have a voice in their local affairs.
While this is pipe dream stuff in America, the trend in France is to allow non-EU foreigners to vote in local elections.
An election is coming. Universal peace is declared and the foxes have a sincere interest in prolonging the lives of the poultry . T.S. Eliot
In the United States in 2008, $5,300,000,000 total was spent on all the election campaigns. Of this $2,400,000,000 was spent for president for 132,618,580 votes. This comes out to about $18/vote. This year, it is estimated that about $6,000,000,000 will be spent on all the election campaigns, of which about half, $3,000,000,000 will pay for the battle between Obama and Romney. Assuming there will be 240 million eligible voters and a 56% turnout, 2012′s 134,400,000 votes will cost $22 each.
In this year’s presidential race, various French newspapers reported that taxpayer spending by all the candidates and their parties amounted to a cost of only –1 per vote, or about 20 times less than it costs per vote in the US. That is probably on the low side and does not include money gotten from citizen contributors. But still, as you will see below, the limits are such that the total cost per vote is probably somewhere in the –2-3 range. But still, how can they do that?
In France, elections are a two-round process. In the 1st round, maximum campaign spending for each candidate is –16,851,000 and in the 2nd round, –22,509,000 can be spent by each of the two finalists. Most of this has to be raised privately, but a good chunk is paid for by the taxpayers.
If a candidate for president gets enough signatures to be on the ballot (amazingly, only 500 signatures are needed among all elected officials!), they get –153,000 before the first round, for their campaign. If they get 5% or more in the first round, taxpayers give that candidate 47.5% of the top limit, or –8,004,000. Less than 5%, they get 4.75%, or –800,423.
This considerable sum of taxpayer money for any candidate who garners only 5% of the vote in the first round assures that a broad spectrum of political persuasions are kept in the political media limelight.
This year, in addition to the frontrunners socialist Hollande and conservative Sarkozy, three parties got at least 5% of the vote: The far right wing Front National, the anti-Wall Street left wing Front de Gauche and the centrist, left leaning Mouvement Démocrate. Trust me, there are serious philosophical and ideological differences between the two main parties. There is a real choice between them. Keeping three other parties in the limelight, two that are diametrically opposed, helps keep the political system honest and the citizenry much more engaged.
In the first round, there were 10 presidential candidates. The fact that one half of them got at least 5% of the vote and will continue to make noise in the media and on future campaign trails is indicative of a robust, confident democracy, from the far left, to the center to the far right.
The other five parties that got less than 5%, in descending order of success: the Greens, an anti-capitalist New Party, the communist Workers’ Struggle, the conservative Gaullist Stand Up Republic and a party called Solidarity and Progress, which believe it nor not, has connections to Lyndon LaRouche! Go figure!
Needless to say, if you can’t find a party to vote for in the first round of France’s elections, you are either an anarchist, in a coma or are dead from the neck up!
If a candidate passes to the second round of presidential voting (the top two candidates from round one, this year the socialists, who went on to win the presidency and the conservatives), they will each get 47.5% of the campaign total paid for by the taxpayers, or –10,691,000.
Individual contributions are a maximum of –4,600 per cycle per contributor per candidate, presidential and legislative in both rounds. These funds must be paid to a registered political party. Corporations, unions and any other legal entity are forbidden to contribute to any candidates, parties or political campaigns. Only real physical French citizens can contribute, to the political party of the candidate, and of course the parties and candidates seek donations from French individuals.
Political parties do get greedy and are caught spending more than these incredibly modest spending limits. There was the Affaire de la Sempap in the early 90s that involved about –15 million.
And in 2010 there was the Bettencourt-Woerth scandal, where the billionaire heir to the L’Oréal fortune said they gave envelopes of money to various politicians, including just replaced president Sarkozy, who unlike George W. Bush, is losing his immunity from prosecution and will likely be charged with fraud. Ditto Jacques Chirac, who lost his immunity when he stepped down as president, and was convicted (remember, these are presidents we are talking about!) for ghost jobs when he was mayor of Paris years ago.
But it is not all as rosy as all that. The French, being clever people and knowing that money is the milk of political success, are getting around these restrictions by creating microparties. A comparison to the United States would be the old PACs, before the Supremes unleashed the monster Super PACs on the land. In addition to the –4,600 limit citizens can donate directly to candidates, each citizen can give up to –7,500 per voting cycle to as many political parties as they want. And twenty years ago, there were about 20 parties. Today? Including all the microparties, there are now around 280!
So, the loophole is to simply establish political parties, usually a party around one politician or a local area in-country. Political parties can legally transfer funds among themselves in France. So, a wealthy donor can give many –7,500 donations to these microparties, knowing that they are aligned to their point of view and that likely, much of this money will end up transferred to the big party desired that is supporting their candidate for president.
The conservatives for sure and the socialists, less so, are sitting fat and happy over this debasement of the law, but the smaller parties are screaming bloody murder and the French people are upset by the system. Hollande got a majority of socialist/left wing seats during the legislative votes last month. Since this system is really helping the conservatives much more than the socialists, it will be interesting to see if Hollande’s mandate can stand up to and resist the sweet fruit of bank accounts full of cash to do battle with their adversaries. Money as we know, and the power that comes with it, is intoxicating, even if you are less intoxicated than your enemy.
At the end of the day, especially now that the US has unfettered corporate and secret super PACs, the amounts of money we are talking about in France are chump change compared to the US’s multi-billion dollar campaign colossuses.
And as everywhere else on Earth, the US, Japan and in all open democracies, France has its fair share of corruption, in the name of crony contracts and kickbacks. But unlike the United States since 2000, people do get caught and do go to jail. Reagan’s administration was the most indicted, convicted and imprisoned in US history and some fish got grilled over the savings and loan corruption in the 1980s. But since then”there is an outside chance a crook may have to pay a token fine, while never having to admit guilt.
For the record, according to Transparency International, in 2011 France is rated #25 in overall corruption and the United States #24, no statistical difference (unfortunately, the US has been dropping rapidly on the world list since 2000). Clearly, corruption is a problem in both countries, but it seems remarkably absent in the election process in France.
People never lie so much as after a hunt, during a war or before an election . Otto von Bismarck
One million French voters live outside France. This is 2.2% of the 46 million French who are eligible to vote. In the recent presidential election, 400,000 overseas French voted, or 40%. This level is half of the 80% of French voters who passed the urns in France to vote for president in 2012. This could be due to a greater sense of apathy among French expats or the fact that you have to get to the French embassy or closest consulate in your country of residence to vote, or someone has to get there for you, if you decide to vote by proxy. Absentee voting in France is illegal, so that means someone, you or a proxy friend have to show their face to vote. Obviously in some less developed countries, getting there may be very difficult if you live far from the embassy/consulate.
Like in France, expats vote on Sunday, except in North America, where they vote on Saturday. I suspect this difference is to respect America’s sense of impropriety about voting on the Sabbath day (unless you are Muslim or Jewish!). But Saturday sure beats the heck out of Tuesday, in terms of convenience, and Sunday is great too.
And things are looking up for this group of voters. For the first time in France’s history, 10 members were added to the lower Chamber of Deputies (like the US’s House of Representatives) to represent French citizens living outside France. The world map was divided up into 10 voting districts according to French expat population numbers.
And another first this year: overseas French could vote for their new legislator by internet. So, from the comfort of my home, after registering with the French consulate, receiving a user name and password by mail and SMS, I voted. The whole thing takes about three minutes, assuming you already have studied the candidates. You even get a 10-digit code when you finish, which you can input on the federal government voting website to confirm your vote was counted! You are implored to keep this code handy in case of a recount. Impressively, 57% of the expat French voters used this brand new internet system for the first round of voting for legislators.
So, I now have a French congressperson representing my interests as an expat citizen living in China. What a cool concept!
Can you imagine the United States having the foresight to add members of congress to represent its 5,000,000 plus expat citizens? I didn’t think so”Can any French person imagine their government farming out this website and voting system to private vendors in order to lower costs and avoid hiring government employees? Je ne croix pas“
Voting day system and controls
It’s not the voting that’s democracy, it’s the counting. Tom Stoppard
Before election day, some of the taxpayers’ money to finance the elections goes to sending out campaign flyers to the voters. I got envelopes for both rounds of the presidential, as well as the first round of the legislative elections. Inside each envelop were nice color A4 folded brochures, where each candidate laid out why I should vote for them. I did not get all ten of the presidential brochures, so I suspect the candidates must need to send them to each city hall or embassy, at their choosing. I also got close to 10 different one page color flyers for the first round of the legislative elections. As well, there are government and journalistic websites where you can consult and see the complete platforms of all the candidates.
JEFF BROWN is a public school teacher in Britain.
ACHTUNG! ACHTUNG! (Hmm…that got your attention, uh?)
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