At a polling booth in France, lessons in transparency and role of volunteers

France does not use EVMs. With just 49 million voters, it does not have to. Yet, the transparency and integrity in the process besides the participation by volunteers are eye-opening

Election posters at a designated place outside Paris (photo: Uttam Sengupta)
Election posters at a designated place outside Paris (photo: Uttam Sengupta)

Uttam Sengupta

On Sunday, 30 June I visited a polling booth at St. Maur (pronounced as ‘summer’), a city 25 kilometre south east of Paris. I accompanied my son-in-law who had shifted out of Paris last year to live in a more spacious house on the suburbs.

He produced his voters’ card and identity proof at the first table, where I saw him engaging in a longish conversation with a man and two ladies manning the counter. Anxious, I asked if anything was wrong and was astonished when told that he was actually being asked if he wanted to volunteer for the counting this evening.

The people manning the counter were all volunteers themselves and they were drafting more volunteers so that the counting could get over faster.

Normally, there would be four counting tables at each booth, I was informed, with four volunteers at each table. More tables could be added depending on the number of candidates and the level of polling.

Each ballot would be taken out of the envelope by one of them, who would show the ballot to others on the table and pass on to the next person. One of them would announce for whom and which party the ballot had been cast and a third person would then record it and one would place the ballot in the designated ‘box’ for the party concerned.

The first table had piles of voters’ slips with each of them with the name of a party and its candidate. Once the voter’s identity is checked and his name is found to be in the rolls, she is required to pick up two or more slips from the table along with an envelope.

So, one could pick up the slips favouring three different parties and their candidates before moving to one of the five booths with screens. Once inside the booth, the voter is required to put one of the slips inside the envelope and place the remaining ones in the pocket or the handbag.

With the ‘vote’ thus secured, she would join the queue and reach another table, where her credentials would be checked again and matched with the electoral roll. Her voters’ card would get stamped and she would drop the envelope inside the ballot box in full view of the volunteers and other voters in the queue.

She would then be required to put her signature on the register as additional proof that she had indeed cast her ballot. This would ensure that she wouldn’t return to cast her ballot a second time.

The ballot box itself was made of transparent, reinforced glass unlike the ballot boxes that were once used in India. They were literally black boxes, metallic and nothing could be seen from outside.

Moreover, ballot boxes in India would be behind a screen and hidden from public view. Stuffing ballots or the presence of others in addition to the voter would normally escape both attention and detention.

While all contesting parties are allowed to have an authorised ‘observer’ at every booth, they have no role to play in the actual counting of votes. Most of the polling personnel were, I was informed, volunteers and anyone eligible to vote could volunteer or be asked if she would be interested in helping in the process of counting.

The participatory process is good training for both the young and the old and thousands of volunteers with different political affiliations take part. Presumably they are chosen finally by lottery and dispersed to different counting tables, preventing the possibility of any one party monopolising the process and hijacking the counting by its own loyalists.

The French were clearly bewildered by my question if it was possible. They had clearly not thought about any such possibility.

Outside the booth set up in a school, was a designated stand for parties to display their posters. In this particular district in St. Maur, four main contenders are in the fray.

Significantly, two of the candidates belong to the same party, Macron’s Ensemble alliance, including the sitting Mayor. The Mayor is popular but has been at loggerheads with the central government on the question of ‘development’.

He is said to be averse to expand housing and allow high-rise buildings. He would like to preserve the greenery and the ‘small town’ ambience so close to Paris. The central government on the other hand would like to push more people out of Paris and settle them in smaller cities around Paris but still connected with the metro train network. St. Maur is one of the bigger cities already with four metro stations instead of just one in most cities in the region.

In the European Parliamentary election held earlier in June, the Left had won the election from the region and the far-right had come last—as the voter percentages secured by each party showed in the New Popular front’s poster outside the booth.

The far-right National Rally. Much like Narendra Modi, is contesting the election by projecting its national leaders, Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella, on its posters. The photograph or even the name of the local candidate is often conspicuous by their absence on its posters. Relatively unknown candidates with little or no experience, they evidently do not matter.

The turn out, as predicted by pollsters, is clearly higher than the past two elections. The high turnout, expected nationally to be between 60 and 65 per cent, opposed to the 48 per cent in 2022, has added an element of uncertainty as pollsters cannot know which of the voters would turn up finally at the booth and who would abstain.

Most people seem to believe that the first round of polling today would show the trend while the second round on 7 July would confirm the final shape of the next parliament.

The market is already jittery. The share market had plunged when the snap poll was announced and people are keeping their fingers crossed about the market response after the polling.

The unpredictability of the economic policies to be finally pursued by the far-right, if they secure an absolute majority, and the political instability if no party secures a majority in a hung house are making the market jittery, agree observers.

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