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French Voters Pack Lipstick to Personalize Election Ballots

French voters were given two choices in the election yesterday, each printed in block letters on a quarter sheet of off-white paper. So some came prepared, with blank sheets, extra lipstick and glue to express themselves in ways modern computer voting doesn’t allow.

Asked to help count the votes in my local precinct in central Paris in my first go-through as a newly minted French voter, I found a bright pink kiss to Nicolas Sarkozy, which failed to see him through to victory; a blank sheet of paper, cut into ribbons; a vote for Francois Hollande, the eventual winner, folded into the shape of a paper boat; and one envelope with names of both candidates glued back-to-back, implying they were essentially the same.

France has deliberately stuck with a low-tech voting system, with nearly all towns and cities, including Paris, using pre-printed slips of paper. Voters then stuff one slip into a small blue envelope marked French Republic and after their identification is checked against a large blue binder that includes hand-written entries at the end for those who registered late, put the envelope in a clear plastic box.

“The issue is reliability,” said Serge Lemesles, a Paris election official. “We worry about something happening like it did in the U.S. in 2000. This is a deliberate choice.”

In the U.S., candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore fought a weeks-long legal and political battle in 2000 over recounting machine-cast votes in Florida. Gore conceded the election to Bush after the U.S. Supreme Court, voting 5-4, ended the recounting of ballots. Baltimore, where I vote in the U.S., now uses touch-screen voting machines.

Counting Ballots

France also has a participative counting system in which random voters are asked if they would be willing to return when the polls close to count ballots.

After I’d shown my identification and been found at the back, I took my paper slips into a maroon-curtained booth. Inside, I slipped a name into my envelope and looked in the trash there. Of the 16 slips I read without rummaging, 11 were Sarkozy, a deceiving figure since I would later find him to be the majority vote-getter in my district.

I then went to the plastic box where the president of the voting center found me in the ledger again, called my name out loud, and then repeated it once I had slipped my envelope in the box.

“Alan Katz has voted,” she said so two other commissioners could hear her. “Would you like to come back and help us count at eight tonight?”

It was an invitation I’d never received in the U.S., so I agreed.

Power of Democracy

Seated at a table with a student, an investment banker and a marketing manager for a topographical map maker, I counted 400 votes in the local library branch-cum-voting center near the Luxembourg Gardens.

As we counted we discussed changes in the neighborhood’s voting habits over the years and whether we might be offered a drink at the end of the evening for our help (we weren’t).

Most of all, we discussed how helping to count, reading out loud name after name, each with a voter behind it, drove home the power of democracy in a way we hadn’t before appreciated and would long remember.

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