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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

What the French election means for the U.S.

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Our world may be more complex and interconnected than ever before, but international elections have long offered a model of resilience. They have emerged as critical to the political process — and democracy itself — as we tend to cast American elections as the gold standard in democracy.

For the first time, there is one other highly publicized election this year, not in the United States, but in France. And while that election is on a small scale, it is nonetheless meaningful. Unlike a presidential election in the United States, the voting here isn’t done by mail, but at polling stations, to be followed up later by a second round of counting and tallying — in order to establish the ultimate outcome.

The processes involved in both the U.S. and French voting tend to attract a lot of attention, but make for both fascinating and important contexts. In the U.S., Republicans successfully attempted to claim some victory on election night after presiding over a long vote count despite reports of possible widespread fraud. France has made headlines in recent weeks for a number of complex election facts — including the unprecedented use of out-of-hours polling locations — and concerns about the severity of the vote count and reporting process.

In the U.S., the rules for keeping the vote count accurate may be straightforward, but there are human factors, like the unusually long wait times at the polls, that affect the results. In the U.S., reporting by news organizations has more to do with how the candidates are doing relative to their rivals than with how voters are filling out the paper ballots. No matter how well prepared a voter base is, these factors can still have an impact on how the election is reflected.

That leaves the Macron campaign trying to catch up with Le Pen, the challenges of polling, and the challenges of on-line electronic voting services. The same is true for any other elections this year — in India, at the time of writing, the results of a parliamentary election are still being announced, and India’s citizenry faced a litany of problems in the process.

The vast majority of elections that take place around the world are run in much the same way. In Western democracies, reporting by traditional television and radio networks is often the norm, with massive coverage in newspapers and electronic media. For the last several elections — particularly in the U.S. — these systems have relied on the same information being supplied to the voting headquarters, with almost no cross-checking or analysis of what’s being reported. There has never been before widespread forensic examination of voting machines or of information transmitted to the voting headquarters, but the avenues for unraveling anomalies are now increasing. There will be many more lessons learned from these two elections and the others that are expected to follow in the coming months.

In France, there are some questions of process and practice that we’re still trying to understand. How long will the time lines for the counting of votes be, when do poll workers close their booths at the end of the day, and what happens with very long wait times? The U.S. has learned the hard way that these are difficult questions, and we’re already well past the point of just sending out an official to tell us how many people have voted, and how many they’ve counted. We will be learning many more lessons from the 2019 and 2020 elections, even before the dust settles in France.

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