Well, this reeks. I venture to think most of us are hoping for a peaceful and fair election in France on 23 April. The candidate I would favor (by default), center-rightist Francois Fillon, almost certainly has no chance of winning at this point. But whoever prevails, I’d rather it be without any hint of foul electoral play.
Unfortunately, due to a longstanding problem in reconciling local voter registration rolls, it appears that as many as 500,000 voters may have been mailed two ballots. The French authorities are said to acknowledge the problem, but to have no plans to do anything about it for this election, other than to prosecute any illegal voting – if it can be detected – after the fact.
The problem isn’t that people have been sent two ballots corresponding to their current voting addresses. It’s that people who have moved from one place to another have been sent ballots corresponding to both their old addresses, and their current ones.
So it is especially unlikely that dual voting would be detected. An individual won’t be voting twice at the same address, but would have the opportunity to vote twice at two different addresses – which are administered by different local voting authorities at the city level.
I’m sure we can assume most of the Frenchmen and women who’ve received two ballots will be honest and cast only one. But the widespread reporting of this problem, which kicked off in the last 24 hours with articles in the big dailies Le Monde and Le Figaro, seems almost designed to call attention to the opportunity it represents.
The double-registration problem does have its oddities. The French outlets reporting on it describe a situation in which voters who have moved dutifully register with their new city halls (mairies), but years later the voting system has failed to de-register them from their old voting addresses. The problem has been known for some time, and was summarized in an IG report in 2014. According to the Le Monde article, there were some 400,000 voters still dual-registered during the last presidential election in 2012, and apparently that number has grown to 500,000 in the years since.
There is a plan to have a national voter registration database by December 2019, which would function finally as a comprehensive clearinghouse for all these dual registrations.
But, again, the election this month is to take place without any precautions against dual voting.
Perhaps all will go off without a hitch. But in an unusual and extraordinarily tight race like the one shaping up between nationalist Marine Le Pen, “center”-leftist Emmanuel Macron, and the surging radical-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon (who claims Hugo Chavez as one of his heroes), it is easy to see even small numbers of votes mattering much more than they ordinarily would.
In fact, an article in the UK Express highlights (if a bit obliquely) the particular vulnerability posed by dual mailings to French citizens living abroad. The overseas voters cast their ballots by mail, so they can vote twice with exceptional ease if they’ve received two. And overseas voters are some of the most likely to vote for Macron or Mélenchon.
Again, it may be that this doesn’t become a bone of contention for the outcome of the election. But it is certainly being played up in the media a week before election day. And the supporters of Le Pen and Mélenchon – the more extreme ends of the spectrum – seem particularly unlikely to simply let it go, if they think their candidates didn’t get a fair shake.
Into the fray, the New York Times has stepped with its inevitable analysis that Russians are hiding in the back alley, breaking into computers and holding sneaky, conspiratorial meetings with French people. Since these meetings are set up by widely-known organizations that were formed between 2004 and 2011, they seem a lot more like the kind of meetings foreign-influence organizations hold everywhere – Chinese and Arabs in the U.S., Japanese and Indians in Turkey, Germans and Brazilians in Indonesia – than like password-controlled Party mole meetings sponsored by the Comintern.
That doesn’t mean the Russians aren’t trying to influence the French election. Of course they are. It does mean that we’re seeing elements of the same pattern in France that we saw surrounding the U.S. election last fall: authorities deliberately ignoring real, documented vulnerabilities in the physical and human operation of the voting system, while the authorities and the media play up the narrative that a fang-toothed Russian cyber-bear can somehow corrupt the French election by sidling up to it and telling lies.
It’s worth keeping an eye on, to the extent that can be done. However you pray, pray for a fair, credible election in France next Sunday.