How a quirk in French voter registration drives high abstention rate

French voters who have moved have to contact authorities to register on local polling lists because registration is not automatic – an exception in Europe. More than 7 million people, many of them young adults, are in this group of "poorly registered" voters. To address the issue of abstention, authorities extended the registration deadline to March 4, 2022, for the April elections.

A voter who is "poorly registered" on the electoral rolls is three times more likely to abstain from voting, warned Céline Braconnier, director of Sciences-Po Saint-Germain, based on her studies. That is a worrisome rate for French democracy, since the abstention rate neared 66 percent for 2021’s regional elections, the country’s last poll. Braconnier, a specialist in voter turnout issues, has coined the term "poorly registered" to describe those who are not registered where they live at the time of voting.

In France, a change on a new voting list is not automatic after a change of address, unlike in most European countries. And with many French people forgetting to register in their new location, chances are higher of voters simply vanishing from polls. "The more mobility there is, the more 'poor registration' there is," Braconnier told FRANCE 24.

Every French national aged 18 or older has the right to vote, which is non-mandatory. Voters then have to register themselves on a polling list at the local town hall where they live.

About three million French people move every year. That figure could increase significantly because of the massive relocation of those working remotely from the cities to the countryside or suburban areas, a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic.

"Some don’t vote for local and parliamentary elections but do vote for presidential ones," Braconnier said. On the other hand, the researcher said, many of those who never go to the polls, not even for presidential elections, belong to the group she calls "poorly registered". "'Poor registration' is one of the fundamental causes of low turnout on presidential polls, even if it does not explain the whole phenomenon," she said.

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Not a class issue

After writing several books on abstention, the political scientist took an interest to the phenomenon of "poor registration" in working-class neighbourhoods at the turn of the 21st century only to realise that it was just as important in wealthy city centres.

Since 2017, France’s National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE) has been counting this phenomenon at the national level, revealing the measure of the problem: 7.6 million people are "poorly registered" in France, adding to the 5.2 million who are not registered to vote at all.

The rate of such voters reaches record levels among young adults: 43 percent of people aged 25-29 in 2017, when the previous presidential election took place. Executives in their 30s with young children, who are leaving city centres, are also numerous in the group. Among 30-34-year olds, 36 percent are "poorly registered". "Even when voters are highly-educated, they procrastinate and do not re-register," Braconnier said.

More proxy voting could be a solution, she said, but the rate of its use is very low in France. That is because the procedure involves taking the time to go in person go to the police station. "Only an overeducated and over-politicised population does it," she said.

US has a similar issue

In most of Europe, including Germany, Italy and Spain, voter registration is automatic when citizens make their "compulsory declaration of residence" of their new address at the local town hall. "France is one of the only major democracies in the world, with the US, that still demands citizens to register separately. That was also the case in the UK, but British governments have been working for change for the past years," Braconnier said.

Last September, Boris Johnson’s government introduced a new elections bill allowing overseas citizens to vote even if they have lived abroad for more than 15 years and other changes "aimed at improving the security of postal and proxy voting and to improve the accessibility of elections for disabled voters".

In France, a possible change has been mentioned by a parliamentary information workgroup. On December 8, a series of proposals were put forward to facilitate voting, including the idea of each voter placing the ballot in the ballot box of any location they choose

So far, the question has been raised several times at the National Assembly, but has remained fruitless. Braconnier believes that "authorities are not ready". According to the political scientist, the explanation lies in French history: "There is a kind of blockage. It is considered that such alternatives would reactivate a dark period in our history, during which the government tracked every movement of individuals."

Registration deadline extended

Despite this resistance, authorities made efforts in 2019: voters can now register online. But without real step-by-step support, this option is not enough, the researcher said.

The registration deadline has also been extended. Gone is the traditional deadline of December 31. Voters can now register up to six weeks before the first round of each poll – March 4 for the 2022 French presidential election.

For the researcher, the move is a step forward. But she regrets that neither candidates or authorities have talked publicly about the new deadline.

"We don't hear enough about it," Braconnier said, comparing France’s situation to the US, where door-to-door registration campaigns are common. "There, parties have realised that the working class was being left out of the vote and pop and rap stars are often taking up the issue publicly. But in France, that is not a thing."

Mail voting for a 'more inclusive democracy'

Some Americans can also vote by mail, a major difference with France. Many have been increasingly calling it as one of the possible solutions to reduce "poor registration" and low turnout in France. In Germany, where this method has existed since 1957, almost a quarter of voters use a postal ballot, a figure that increases every year.

"We must absolutely simplify things. This is the price to pay for a more inclusive democracy”, Braconnier summed up. For her, France must tackle the problem head on, or a part of the French population will be excluded from voting. However, removing this bureaucratic obstacle "will not solve the problem of disillusionment with politics", she pointed out, which is another major reason for France’s low turnout.

This story has been adapted from the original in French.

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