Thursday, April 16, 2015

Vaalit 2015: Not Any Given Sunday

On Sunday, Finns go to the polls to elect a new parliament. And so will I.

I have voted here several times. As an ulkomaalainen (foreigner) with permanent resident status, I had been eligible to vote in municipal elections for years, which essentially means I’ve been allowed to cast votes for Helsinki council members. This would largely be unheard of in the States, where outside a few places like Chicago, apparently, folks need actual citizenship to vote in any election, no matter how local.

Actual citizenship is a strict requirement for taking part in national elections in Finland as well. For that reason, until now I haven’t had much cause to think about which candidate, or even which party, would best match my politics. Now, as newly minted Finn, I do.

Deciding which party or candidate to support will be the hard part. The voting itself is made easy here, in some ways much easier than in the States. That, of course, should come as no surprise.

Both the red tape associated with voting and the practicalities of elections are much simpler.

In the States, Election Day is always on a Tuesday, a regular weekday when, obviously, most people have to go to work. The choice of Tuesday as a day for voting is a weird leftover from the 18th century, when Tuesday was presumably seen as more convenient for farmers, which most Americans were at the time. It gave folks from the far corners of the county enough time to travel into town. Also, it didn’t interfere with the all-important church going on Sunday or the also important market day on Wednesday. Maybe it allowed those rural farmers to – in one trip – exercise their right to vote on Tuesday and then stay in town to sell their produce the next day – if they had sobered up enough.

Often in the past, Election Day in America was also a good excuse for some heavy partying. I recall hearing a story, from my grandfathers’ time of almost a century ago, of Election Night revelers riding mules through the courthouse in my home county.

Those kinds of rowdy hijinks on Election Day are long gone, though a much more subtle, even subversive, species of hijinks seems to reemerge now and then.

Anyway, the fact that working folks have to take time out from a busy day to vote seems inconvenient enough. As outmoded as Tuesday voting might seem, it’s written into the Constitution, and so it will never change. Sadly.

In Finland, voting is always on Sunday, a day when most people don’t punch a clock or go into the office. Likewise, most don’t ordinarily go to church, so religion doesn’t interfere with voting, and vice versa. It’s a much more leisurely, practical approach, if you ask me, generally making it easy for Finns to make it to the polls on Election Day.

Some can’t wait that long. Ten days before the election, I happened to step into the library in Oulunkylä, a northern Helsinki neighborhood. I was at first a bit perplexed why the periodical section of the library was unusually crowed with older folks just standing around. Then I realized they were actually queuing to vote in the library’s activity room.

It was the second day of advanced voting, which is arranged on seven dates before the actual election. Around Helsinki, early voting is possible in some 35 locations, mostly libraries or post offices, but also in a shopping mall. It seems a popular enough avenue for Finnish voters, and as far as I know, not the least controversial.

Unlike in the States, that is, where in some minds increasing the opportunities to vote is considered unfair to certain groups. The logic of this escapes me. Or maybe they think it’s too fair to certain groups. That sounds more like it.

Last October, a predominately Democratic county in Georgia, one of the 33 states that allow early voting, experimented with opening a polling place in a mall on the Sunday before Election Day. At the time, it was roundly criticized by state Republicans, apparently for making voting too easy for the local black community, and led to proposed legislation to correct this by reducing the number of early voting days from 21 to 12, explicitly excluding the Sunday before election. The bill was recently defeated.

To be somewhat fair, however, even 12 days is perhaps better than Finland’s seven. Still, making a point of reducing voting opportunities doesn’t appear to be a very democratic impulse, which is surely why it comes from the GOP.

As anyone who knows US history will remember, similarly non-democratic impulses were prevalent in the past, even institutionalized, especially in the South. I’m talking about using voter registration as a means of voter suppression.

In the US, voter registration is done on the county level, and in the Jim Crow South prior to 1965 local white officials put up as many barriers as possible to prevent blacks from taking even this first step for voting. People died, were murdered, for daring to help ensure US citizens could register to vote, black citizens, that is. And this in the country that styles itself as the role model of democracy.

Well, that was long ago. I would hope that unfair registration practices have never been used as a political weapon in Finland’s past. Chances are, registration has always been automatic and universal, just as it is now.

About a month before this year’s election, I received an ilmoituskortti (literally “notification card”), essentially confirming that I am registered to vote. I didn’t have to take any action to register. It happens automatically, just as it does for all Finnish citizens of voting age (my 19-year-old daughter also got registered, automatically). As I said, universal registration.

Of course, one big reason Finland can register every voter unsolicitedly is that everyone here is already in a government database. Whenever you relocate in Finland, move to a new town or address, you are required by law to register with the local police. It simplifies things.

People in Finland would see this as an easy way to ensure you’re properly integrated into the social services system and that the government can send you stuff, like ilmoituskortteja and tax returns. People in the US (at least some) would see it as an easy way to ensure the government can find you when it’s time to confiscate your guns. Those black helicopters have to know where to land, after all.

To me, this gap in mentality between the practical and the paranoid speaks volumes about the differences between the two countries.

A couple of weeks after the black helicopters my registration notice arrived, I received an unexpected official-looking envelope with the somewhat imposing letterhead of the Ministry of Justice. I was a bit startled and almost thought for a moment “This is what deportation looks like.”

Instead, it was a welcoming letter for first-time voters, along with a small pamphlet with some basic information about the process. It’s almost as if they are encouraging people to vote. As it should be.

The basics for a national election is just the same as for the municipal ones I’ve participated in before. At the polling place, you give your name and present a photo ID. The poll worker checks your name on a list, hands you a blank paper ballot with only a circle in the middle, which you take into a booth and mark with the number of your candidate. You fold the ballot to hide your choice, have the poll worker stamp the ballot, and then drop it in a box. No hanging chads here.

As I mentioned, a photo ID is required. This is another area that, in the States, can lend itself to election hijinks. But, frankly, I’m puzzled why this should be an issue.

In recent years, Republicans have pushed for stricter ID requirements for voters in order to counter what they claim is the problem of voter fraud. This is seen by many Democrats (no doubt, correctly) as an attempt to discourage voters who are more likely to support Democrats (namely, blacks and other minorities). It’s a weird issue.

First of all, the “issue” of voter fraud seems like a bald-face excuse, since many studies have shown that fraud based on identity is rare, apparently outnumbered by the cases of legitimately registered voters being turned away at the polls for lack of an ID.

At the same time, I see no reason why voters shouldn’t have to prove who they are. In other words, the motivations of the Republicans are cynical and conniving, but I have no problem with the “solution” of a photo ID requirement. After all, folks have to show an ID for many transactions that involve money, why not also for casting a vote?

While most Americans already have a photo ID in the form of a driver’s license, not all do, so there is the argument that requiring those citizens to obtain an ID just to exercise their constitution right is unfair.

That might be true in cases of some citizens – used to showing up at the polling place with nothing but their word to vouch for who they are – haven’t been given enough notice to get an ID (which some states do provide for free). Maybe I've lived in Finland too long, but it seems that requiring all citizens to have an ID shouldn't be such a huge deal.

I seem to recall the last time I voted in person in Georgia a few years ago, I had to drive back to my parents’ house to fetch my passport before I was allowed to vote at the volunteer firehouse down the road, even though some of the people there knew me. I don’t recall that it particularly bothered me.

Anyway, when I go to vote at the schoolhouse near my home on Sunday, I’ll be sure to take along my driver’s license. But first, I have to figure out who gets my vote. That’s the subject for another day, and it probably involves a vaalikone (“election machine”).


  1. In fact, voter ID is needed in Finland only if none of the officials vouch for your identity. Which, of course, means that most people need it.

    1. I stand corrected. Thanks for that clarification. I guess it does makes sense, and also that well-known people (for example, Alexander Stubb or Aira Samulin) wouldn't need to show an ID.

  2. The reason why the elections are on Sundays is probably the very fact that everyone went to the church on Sunday mornings and that it was supposed to be the day of rest. The churches were in the middle of the town or village and that's where all the other important buildings were, too. I wouldn't be terribly surprised if they voted in the church after the sermon. Probably not, though.
    So, everyone has the day off and is there anyway - a no-brainer.

    You don't have to be in your own district or home municipality to vote early. They mail or otherwise transport the ballots to the home district to be counted anyway, so you can vote early anywhere. On the election day, you can only vote in your own district.

    1. When I was a child, all elections took place on two consecutive days, a Saturday and a Sunday, and you could choose on which day you voted. The Saturday option was dropped before I started voting, I believe because the early voting possibility had become ubiquitous and accepted enough.

      Advance voting is also possible abroad in selected locations. I voted in DĂĽsseldorf this time.