I voted today in two separate elections in two separate continents. So that’s “often.” Both election days are also in the future, so that’s “early.” So hooray for me for getting my democracy on.
The first election was, rather obviously, the US election. I’m still registered in Massachusetts, so I had to send a letter to New Bedford, wait a few weeks, get the paper ballot back, fill it out with a Number 2 pencil, stuff it into an affidavit envelope, sign the affidavit on the envelope, then stuff that into a mailing envelope and send that back to the states. Apparently, I can email a scan of my ballot these days, and I seem to have also been able to request the ballot online. But I kind of like the old school style, and I get a huge kick out of all of the envelopes. In case you’re wondering, in my first election of eligibility, I elected to vote for myself for President of the United States. The electoral college system is such a joke that I considered not voting at all—Obama will win the Commonwealth with or without my help—but we’ve got an important Senate race brewing in Massachusetts, and I felt obligated to vote in that.
Despite the requirements on the affidavit that the ballot be filled out in solitude, I filled it out with friends during pub trivia on Monday. It was fun and exciting, and it was during that time that my friends invited me to go vote with them today (Wednesday), the first of two early-voting days here in Lithuania.
In Lithuania, the upcoming Sunday’s vote is to solve two questions. First, there is a referendum on whether atomic energy stations should be allowed to be built in Lithuania. Referenda require a minimum percentage turnout, so they’re aligned toward failure. The second question we aim to answer is “Who will make up the next Seimas“? So it’s parliamentary election time!
Unlike Congress, the Seimas is unicameral, yet it’s made up of two kinds of members of parliament. 71 members represent specific constituencies. 70 members, however, are chosen based on proportional representation in voting. In other words, fringe parties can get members into Seimas by having broad national support (picking up 5% or more nationwide) or by having fervid local support in a single constituency, by winning the local riding’s election. As a result, today voters received three ballots: one for the referendum, one for the parties, and one for the local constituency. It’s a little confusing to Americans, perhaps, but France does something similar, so it didn’t completely startle me.
The voting process, however, is, oddly, more like voting absentee in the US than voting in person. In person (which I’ve done maybe once or twice in my life), I walk into the polling place, give them my name (and show no ID), receive a ballot, fill it out in private, and then drop the folded ballot into a box with a crank that counts the ballot as it’s cranked through.
Absentee in the US, I request a ballot, receive the ballot, put it in an envelope, put that envelope in another envelope, and return the nested envelopes to the election commission.
In Lithuania, I receive an invitation to vote (or have one printed out onsite at Vilnius City Hall), take the invitation with my passport or national ID to my corresponding constituency, receive my three ballots along with two envelopes. I vote, fold the ballots into an envelope, then put that envelope with my invitation into the second, larger envelope, return it to the woman who gave me the ballots, and receive a receipt (see photo above) coded against my ballot. I imagine this is partly to allow me to make sure that my vote has been counted.
Now here is another quirk. When I moved to Vilnius, I registered as an inhabitant of the city. However, inhabitants are expected to own property in the city. ((Many of my friends who rent in Vilnius are still registered in their home towns or villages from which they came to Vilnius. The line for that voting was some 500 people long today. My line was about ten people). Since I own no property, I had to register as a person without a permanent living space, which means that, according to the city, my address is City Hall (cue The Blues Brothers). Furthermore, for some reason, this means that I vote for an MP in the Old Town (Senamiestis) riding, not the New Town (Naujamiestis) riding, in which I actually live. This is too bad, since the Naujamiestis riding had more candidates than Senamiestis. I voted for the English literature PhD professor on that ballot. And who said voting isn’t clannish…
So the homeless get dumped into Senamiestis. Who gets dumped into Naujamiestis? The hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians living abroad. Once you leave Lithuania, you get dumped into Naujamiestis. So that’s why Juozas Murauskas is running for Seimas as a member of the “Emigrants’ Party,” representing Naujamiestis. His party is putting up 30 candidates, but only six represent specific ridings, and of those, only one is in Vilnius. The first one.
There’s one more peculiar (to Americans) twist to voting. When I vote for a party, at the bottom of the ballot I fill in five numbers: an ordered list of candidates by preference. So had I voted for the Labor Party (Darbo partija), I could’ve filled in the code (72) for a friend of mine I know from Paris. But the order of the candidates in the list, I imagine, is determined by the party itself, and usually the chairman of the party heads the list. The person corresponding to #1, then, is often the most famous person in the party. So the (neo-)liberal coalition “Union Yes!” has the current mayor of Vilnius, Artūras Zuokas, at the top of the list, though he’s not trying to represent a specific constituency. Then, four names down, we see that Zuokas’s wife, Agnė, is running to represent Senamiestis (I voted against her).
Zuokas at the top of the list shows another interesting quirk about Lithuanian voting. In the booth, there is a catalog of all of the parties and the codes corresponding to the candidates. However, if the candidate has been convicted of a crime or has some other shady element in his past, like Zuokas, who was found guilty of bribery, then a brief note follows the name saying something like “this person has been found guilty of a crime.” Of the 18 parties offering candidates, ten had candidates with such asterisks among their top ten.
Tomorrow people can also vote early at City Hall if they like, and on Sunday the polls will open nationwide. Incidentally, the last time I checked, the Social Democrats were in line to win the plurality of seats in the Seimas, which might lead them to form a soft-left coalition with the Labor Party. But we’ll see on Monday.