KV17 – STORY # 8 – CURTAIN LIFTING
IN DANISH, KV17 IS SHORT FOR MUNICIPAL ELECTIONS 2017. ON 21 NOVEMBER, DANISH VOTERS WILL DECIDE THE POLITICAL COMPOSITION OF 98 MUNICIPAL COUNCILS AND 5 REGIONAL COUNCILS. THIS TAKES PLACE EVERY FOUR YEARS, AND ALWAYS ON THE THIRD TUESDAY IN NOVEMBER. THIS IS CAST IN STONE AND DIFFERS FROM ELECTIONS FOR PARLIAMENT, WHICH CAN BE CALLED BY THE PRIME MINISTER WITHIN THE PERIOD OF MAXIMUM FOUR YEARS. DURING THE ELECTION CAMPAIGN, I WILL POST A SERIES OF STORIES ABOUT SMALL AND LARGE ISSUES THAT DEFINE THE SPECIAL ‘DEMOCRATIC CULTURE’ OF MUNICIPAL ELECTIONS IN DENMARK.
STORY # 8
20 HOURS AS ‘CURTAIN LIFTER’ IN THE SERVICE OF DEMOCRACY
The photo above this story is the most exciting picture you will get from me today, on 22 November 2017, the day after the election for 98 municipal councils and 5 regional councils took place. I took the photo while I was performing the duty allocated to me by the Chairman of the local election committee: to guide and lead voters into the voting booth to make their choice in secret behind the curtains. The formal title for this on the work plan handed out was Curtain Lifter, and this simply means what it says: To lift the curtain to make it possible for the voter to enter the booth. So this story will be about the municipal election 2017 from the perspective of a Curtain Lifter!
But let us start from the beginning, so you can get a correct and practical understanding of the mechanics of an election in Denmark. This time it was a municipal election, but the processes and procedures are basically the same in a parliamentary election. Together with others who had decided to volunteer as election officials, as well as those staffers from the municipality who had been designated to participate, we met at 7 in the morning, one hour before the doors to the polling station opened. In our case, the polling station was a municipal sports hall, just a few minutes on bicycle from where I live.
Tables with computers where voters would have to present their voting cards sent to them by mail were already set up, just like the voting booths with bluish and grayish curtains both in the front and the back. On the other side of the voting booths, the boxes where the paper ballots had to be deposited would be placed, one box for the municipal election and another for the regional. So what we – the election officials – were expected to do was simply to guide the voters from the time they arrive at the polling station to the time they leave it. There is nothing complicated about it – it is not rocket science – but it still needs to be done according to the rules developed over time to ensure that the election result cannot be disputed in any way.
During the morning hour before doors were opened at 8 am, the Chairman told us that we had been divided into three groups, with two groups being in action together at all times. This made it possible for us to have a few coffee breaks during the day, plus having time for lunch and dinner. Doors would be closed at 8 pm. Looking around at my approximately 40 election official colleagues while we were eating our breakfast, it was clear that there were two distinct groups: one was the experienced group of people affiliated to the political parties, who could tell stories about how the last election in 2013 worked out; and then the group I belonged to, with inexperienced first-timers, some very young, and some from my own age group.
What struck me from the start was the cheerfulness of the group, and the wish to make a contribution to celebrate our democracy [although some of the young volunteers admitted that the small amount of money offered also played a role]. Old-timers were quick to share their experience with the new-comers. Old mixed with young right away. Funny stories of incidents taking place in the 2013 election were shared. Most were willing to change their area of responsibility if one of us indicated that they would rather do something else.
The first obstacle – checking identity
In Denmark, the voters’ roll is based on your personal identity number, which is the basis for all relationships between the state and the citizen. Since this database is continuously updated – when a citizen is born, when a citizen dies, when a person leaves the country, when a person settles in the country – it will at any given time reflect the group of citizens of 18 years and above allowed to vote. Around one week before election day, we receive an election card by mail. It tells you where your polling station is located, and it indicates both your name and your date of birth. This is all you need to be allowed to vote.
At exactly 8 am, the Election Supervisor opened the doors to the big hall, and while voters waited anxiously to be allowed to cast their vote and continue to their workplace, he read out the formal message of the start of the municipal election 2017. He also asked voters to look at the open non-transparent cardboard ballot boxes and ascertain that they were all empty. We all expressed our understanding that this was in fact the case! Then the boxes were closed and moved to the other side of the voting booths, and the long line of voters could start the journey through the hall.
First stop was the registration table. The voting card was scanned, showing the name of the voter and her/his date of birth. Then one of the two officials at the table asked the voter about the date of birth, and when the date had been verified as correct, two very long paper ballots with all the parties, lists and candidates running were handed out – one for the city or municipal council, and a different one for the regional council. This means that there is no checking of finger prints! Nor is checking of photo identity required. This often surprises people visiting to observe our elections, because they are used to stricter rules. However, this works in Denmark.
The second phase – deciding in the voting booth
This is the phase where I spent the day from 8 am to 8 pm as a Curtain Lifter. Having been given the paper ballots, voters would line up in front of the approximately 20 voting boots, all with a curtain at the front as well as the back. I would check the booth before a voter entered, to make sure that the previous voter had not left anything that could be a cause for concern – like ‘propaganda’ from one of the parties or advertising material from a local shop. I would also make sure that the red pencil was still there, and this was important because the way we do it is to make a cross in the small box in front of the party name or the candidate name.
I have to admit that I was impressed with the queuing culture of the voters. During the twelve hours, I did not see a single voter trying to push his way in front of others; rather the contrary, people would ask the elderly and those with children to move in front. Of course some took longer in the booth than others, maybe because they found it difficult to make a final decision on which party or candidate they wanted to vote for. However, the flow of people through the voting booths was calm and constant.
On a few occasions, the peaceful [and at times slightly boring] normalcy was broken. This could be when an elderly couple approached you to ask for help, because one of them was suffering from a very bad eyesight, or maybe from a light version of dementia. Then I would call one of the other officials, because two officials are required to offer help to a voter. We would then ask the person to declare their choice of party or candidate, and when this was clear beyond any reasonable doubt, we could help the person place the cross in the correct box.
“I may be old, but I have voted for the same party for at least 60 years,” an old lady coming up to me stated, with a clear and convincing voice. “But my eyes are not as good as they used to be, so you need to guide me. Will you do that?” My guess would be that she was close to 90 years, and she was just thrilled to participate in yet another election. “You never know, but this could be the last chance for me to participate,” she said before she walked to the ballot box and deposited her two ballot papers in the cardboard box.
The last phase – counting the votes
The last three hours before the polling station closed at 8 pm, people were streaming through the voting hall in a steady flow. They had finished work, picked up children and were ready to go back home, make dinner, and get the smallest children ready for bed. Many children had their first experience with the democratic on this occasion, and parents seemed to be proud to include their children in this democratic exercise of deciding on the composition of the city council that would rule for the next four years.
Almost exactly at 8 pm, the Election Supervisor asked if there were more people wishing to exercise their right to vote? This did not seem to be the case. He then declared the election for closed!
Right after, we started the final stage of our duties as election officials. Tables were rearranged, ballot boxes were opened and emptied onto the table – and then the arduous process of counting close to 12.000 ballot papers started. As vote counters, we were placed along the long table in pairs, with the party expected to get the most votes at the top, and then the rest of the parties in descending order of their expected size. In our part of Copenhagen, it was expected that the Social Democrats would come first, then the Red-Green Alliance, followed by the Social Liberals, the Alternative and the rest.
For all of us, the job assigned was simple: Look only for votes cast for your own party! If the ballot paper has been crossed for ‘your’ party or a candidate from ‘your’ party, then you keep it in your own pile. If not, then you pass it on to the next group. When all of the ballots cast had been organized into bigger or smaller piles, it was time to start the actual counting. Working in pairs, and actually counting each ballot twice, we would organize the ballot papers in sets of 300 and pack them into cardboard boxes. Tomorrow, they would all be recounted to confirm the results, and also to identify the exact number of votes cast for each candidate.
Most polling stations around the country were able to communicate the result to the central election authorities before midnight. This was not possible for the polling station I had been assigned to. We worked hard into the night before the results could be communicated.
Having worked for almost 20 hours, I was totally exhausted when the last vote had been counted. Rain was pouring down as I made my way through the city on bicycle. However, I noticed that I was not alone. At three in the morning, there was more traffic than usual, with people going home after having enjoyed the celebration of election victory with good friends.