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On U.S. Election Day, A Look At How Others Vote


On this Election Day, in order to vote, we may have touched a screen, we may have filled in an oval with a number two pencil, we may have tugged on a lever with a satisfying mechanical "kachunk." We were curious about how people vote in other parts of the world, and we've asked Skye Christensen to come talk about that. He's with the nonpartisan International Foundation for Electoral Systems. That's a nonprofit group that helps countries run democratic elections. Welcome to the program.

Mr. SKYE CHRISTENSEN (Election Cycles Specialist, International Foundation for Electoral Systems): Thank you.


BLOCK: Why don't you give us some examples of countries voting without modern machinery?

Mr. CHRISTENSEN: One of the most famous examples is Gambia, which is just way over in West Africa. And they vote with marbles. So as you go into the polling station, the poll worker will give you a marble. And you go behind the booth, and you just drop it into a bin. And at the end of the day, they'll look which bin has the most marbles, and that will be the winner.

BLOCK: And presumably, each bin would have a photograph or an image of the party or the person that you are voting for?

Mr. CHRISTENSEN: Yeah, each - the bins will be labeled with the candidate that you're voting for.

BLOCK: In places where literacy is a problem, obviously they have to do things differently so that people know for whom they're voting. What are some of the ways, besides marbles, that countries deal with that?


Mr. CHRISTENSEN: I think literacy is almost always - is often a problem. One thing that is very common is to put symbols and/or pictures of the candidates on the ballot. And that's normally the way to sort of overcome that ability.

BLOCK: What are the penalties in places for not voting, in places that have compulsory voting?

Mr. CHRISTENSEN: One of the biggest countries that uses compulsory voting is Australia. And in Australia, there is a fine. I think, to the best of my knowledge, it's something like $20. And basically, if you don't show up to the polls, or if you don't apply to not show up at the polls, then you get levied with that fine. And theoretically, if you didn't pay the fine, nor did you show up at the polls, you could actually be incarcerated.

BLOCK: Incarcerated theoretically?

Mr. CHRISTENSEN: Theoretically. I've never heard of that happening.

BLOCK: In these places where there is compulsory voting, do we end up seeing pretty much a hundred percent turnout, universal turnout?

Mr. CHRISTENSEN: We do get extremely high turnout. And one of the most - I think one of the most important implications of that is that it puts the responsibility of making sure everyone can vote, since it is the law, in the hands of the government. And so in Australia, where you see it for instance, they will actually fly polling places out to ranchers in remote areas, to remote aboriginal communities to make sure that every citizen gets to vote.

BLOCK: Bringing the ballot box to them.

Mr. CHRISTENSEN: Bringing the ballot box to them and making sure it's extremely easy to vote.

BLOCK: What about places that in order to make it easier to vote give people essentially a holiday on Election Day or maybe schedule elections for weekends? Is that a common thing?

Mr. CHRISTENSEN: It's a very common thing, and we very much see it as the best practice. In our sort of agrarian society that we might have had 200 years ago when they decided that Tuesday was a good day to vote on, it might have made sense. But today when people have to go to work, it would be much better to have it as a national holiday. We have enough other national holidays. Why not voting day?

BLOCK: And you do see that in many parts of the world?

Mr. CHRISTENSEN: Absolutely. In most of Europe, you vote on the weekends.

BLOCK: You know, a lot of times when other countries have elections, we send delegations, monitors, to make sure that they are democratically enforced. Who's paying attention to our election in 2008?

Mr. CHRISTENSEN: Before 2004, there was very - it was very rare that we had international observers. The U.S. has actually asked the OSC, which is the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. They have an office which focuses on this sort of thing. They have a long-term observer mission which has been in the U.S. for a number of weeks, maybe months. And they're deployed to, I think, 40 states. And they will be - they have issued statements and will issue a final report on the electoral process when they're finished.

BLOCK: And what are they looking for?

Mr. CHRISTENSEN: They're looking a lot at how the reforms that were initiated in 2002 after what happened in 2000 - and they are looking at how that reform process is going through. And they'll also look at the environment and essentially how free and how fair are the elections.

BLOCK: Skye Christensen, thanks for coming in.

Mr. CHRISTENSEN: Thank you.

BLOCK: Skye Christensen is an election cycles specialist for the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, or IFES. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.