The simple fix that could make the US a lot better at democracy (and more like the French)

To the victor go the spoils.
To the victor go the spoils.
Image: Reuters/Christophe Petit Tesson
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When just under 75% of eligible voters cast ballots in the deciding round of the French presidential election last month, there was much hand-wringing about rising civic disillusionment and apathy (link in French).

It was the lowest participation rate in France since 1969, compared to voter turnouts of upwards of 80% in the two most recent races for the Elysee Palace.

But even if abstention was high, with 5% fewer citizens trekking to polling stations and a record 12% votes being cast blank or defaced, France’s participation rate puts the United States to shame. Only 55% of voting-age Americans cast ballots last November.

There are doubtless many reasons for this disparity, including the fact that voters are automatically registered at age 18 in France, but must do so voluntarily in the US. Still, the nuts and bolts of the act of voting day itself should not be overlooked.

For one thing, France votes on the weekend while the US votes on Tuesday, a tradition dating back to agrarian times in the mid-19th century. In contrast to the American system, weekend voting in France arguably cuts down on a lot of the stress weekday voters experience as they try to juggle their job responsibilities and their civic duty.

Caroline Vagneron is a dual French-US citizen who was born in Santa Monica and grew up in France before returning to the US in 2002. Currently based in Washington DC, Vagneron she helps provide development assistance for refugees. She also votes in both countries.

Vagneron tells Quartz that there’s certainly a difference between weekday and weekend voting. While weekday voting is complicated, weekend voting is “less disruptive,” she explains. “You have the whole day and you can organize yourself.”

In the US, there is no federal law obliging employers to give their employees paid time off work to vote. Luckily, Vagneron’s office management gave staff time to vote. However, long lines mean it’s not exactly a trip to the grocery store.

“I remember queuing here [in the US] for the elections super early to beat the crowd,” she said. “Everybody wants to vote before they go to work and last November the lines were going down the street and all the way down the block. It took me a couple of hours—it was a bit messy”.

This atmosphere is in direct contrast with her experiences living in France, in the countryside of Orleans: “I didn’t have to queue. You have the entire day to vote. Absolutely it was less stressful and easier. And even here in the US where if you’re French you vote on the Saturday, it is still you who decides what you do with your weekend.”

But weekend voting isn’t the only way France has made the process smoother. Proxy voting or voting by “procuration” on behalf of another person is also relatively easy in France. The absent voter simply needs to fill out and sign a declaration saying they cannot be present to vote and are giving that responsibility over to another person. A passport, French ID card or driver’s license is all that is required in terms of identification.

This kind of flexibility is “fantastic,” Vagneron notes, especially for French citizens who are traveling.

France’s more relaxed strategy even carries over into its media coverage. There are strict French laws that end the official presidential campaign at midnight on Friday and impose a 44-hour media and campaigning blackout that lasts until the results come in at 8pm on Sunday evening.

“I think it’s very healthy when you have a couple of days of peace and quiet to make up your mind,” Vagneron notes. “It’s like noise pollution when you have all the media continuing to talk about the campaign right up until you vote. That bit of silence for a few days means you can come to your own conclusions and integrate what you have heard for the past many months.”

This year’s French election included a dramatic, last-minute hack of thousands of emails and documents from Emmanuel Macron’s campaign. The documents were released late Friday evening in France, just before the midnight campaigning and media blackout, and quickly spread by pro-Trump and Putin-admiring far right partisans. But while the leaks seemed ominous in the US, the impact in France seems to have been far less dramatic. (Both candidates were barred from commenting on the affair.)

“I knew about that [the leaks in the US]—not that it changed my mind,” Vagneron says. “But it’s good when you can’t have anything last-minute which can trigger a change. There’s already been months of debate both here and in France just before the election so to have a weekend to finally pause and make up your mind is helpful. It doesn’t open the door to crazy hacks and attacks that will change the way you want to vote. And the campaign is over anyway.”

Any suggestion that France handles democracy better than its American cousins tends to irritate commentators and election experts, of course.

Some pundits accuse the left of having a “voting fetish.” Or as Noah Rothman argued in Commentary magazine: “It seems like virtually every foreign election provides those already inclined to mock American political insularity with a  chance to indulge their prejudice.”

Election analysts like David Becker at the Center for Election Innovation and Research are also skeptical. “There is no evidence to suggest weekend voting is the reason for France’s voter turnout, or that it would have an impact on American turnout,” he said, noting that “more voters than ever before are voting at another time, both by mail or in person.” As Becker tells Quartz: “There is zero research to support the idea that weekend voting will boost national turnout.”

Still, activist groups like Why Tuesday? are pushing for a weekend vote, because in today’s urban society “we all know how hard it is to commute to our jobs, take care of the children, and get our work done, let alone stand in line to vote.”

In other words, if there is a way to make the process easier, why not adopt it?

“Census data over the last decade clearly indicates that the inconvenience of voting is the primary reason Americans are not participating in our elections,” Why Tuesday? notes on its website. “So, if we can move Columbus Day, Presidents’ Day, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Holiday for the convenience of shoppers, why not move Election Day to the weekend and make it more convenient for the sake of voters.”

But the problem, as identified by the US Government Accountability Office, is that the weekend election option has never been properly investigated or tried.

In their report “Views on Implementing Federal Elections on a Weekend,” the GAO concluded: “Weekend elections have not been studied, but studies of other voting alternatives determined that voter turnout is not strongly affected by them. Since nationwide federal elections have never been held on a weekend, it is difficult to draw valid conclusions about how moving federal elections to a weekend would affect voter turnout. GAO’s review of 24 studies found that, with the exception of vote by mail, each of the alternative voting methods was estimated to change turnout by no more than 4 percentage points.”

In an era of close elections, however, 4% could mean a results-tipping difference, and potentially millions more voters casting a ballot. A long French weekend of voting, coupled with other measures like a media blackout, could potentially ease the burden on voters and may even encourage more of them to participate in the democratic process. Sounds like a win-win for democracy.