CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1Voting is a symbolic social practice. This statement is neither particularly audacious nor controversial, yet the studies that seek to explore its implications are rare in political science. [1] Attention is more often focused on the consequences (the results and designation of representatives) or the determinants of the vote, or on the context of the campaign and the strategies used to win votes by the different actors involved.

2Electoral practices are institutionalised by repeated performances of a codified series of actions. What we are interested in here is the performance of the ritual, rather than the institution. Talking about ritualisation means extending the analysis of institutionalisation by emphasising the role played by symbols (objects, decors and gestures for example) and considering the significations attached to these things. Voting day mobilises an entire community of citizens in a given political system around an event that combines unity of time, place, action, and which culminates in the designation of legitimate political representatives. The vote is a practice that is both institutionalised and ritualised. It transforms citizens’” individual ballots into a collective decision and temporarily renders the governed masters of the governors. This magic of the election is rarely investigated. [2]

3Analysing the vote as a ritual enables us to shed light on the significant historical conflicts that have punctuated the invention of political traditions, as well as the repertoires of meaning that accompanied the construction of citizenship models in specific national contexts, and which are in part determined by the way the borders between the public and the private spheres are defined. A comparative analysis of these practices is all the more interesting because it allows us to question that which is the most familiar to us, to challenge something so obvious that it has become automatic – to the point where we no longer even notice it. Yet voting rituals are specific to each political community and it is always surprising to observe the practices of others, and to see how citizens are called upon to express their political will.

4The different national histories of how suffrage was extended, and voting behaviour was learnt, have led to distinct practices. Although universal (male) suffrage was a revolutionary and republican (1848) conquest in France, in the United Kingdom it was the result of progressive concessions over several decades. This gradual evolution in the United Kingdom did not lend itself to the invention of rules to be immediately and universally imposed throughout the country, or to objects invested with particular symbolism. The essential elements of British political ritualisation remain centred on the Parliament; the prestigious ceremonies mobilising the symbols of power (the Queen’s Speech, voting procedures, the House of Lords [3]) are organised here annually, even daily, and are subject to significant media coverage. By contrast, electoral rituals take place without pomp or ceremony.

5The history of the institutionalisation of the vote has been well explored in both France [4] and the United Kingdom. [5] It shows that the process of learning how to vote has been long and progressive. However, the literature on the vote as a symbolic practice is surprisingly rare beyond the analysis provided by Frederic Bon [6] and Stephen Lukes – who described elections as the “most important form of political ritual in liberal democratic societies”. [7] More recently Yves Déloye has proposed an ethnographic study of the vote in French villages to expound Bon’s outline, [8] and Stephen Coleman has explored what voters “feel”. [9] American studies have looked at the way electoral rituals serve to legitimate political reality and rely on the media apparatus, [10] or on an analysis of the expressive aspect of electoral participation. [11] Aside from a few national studies, generally focused on the extension of suffrage, the comparative literature in political science is, to all extents and purposes, non-existent. [12]

6Anthropologists have also not been very interested in this question, except in societies where the practice was imposed, [13] or in the more general context of secular and political rituals. [14] Today, voting seems self-evident. Moreover, the way “we” vote here is the most “natural” and evident of all. Indeed, electoral actions and gestures are habitual and internalised. As both Déloye (in his ethnography of the vote in villages), and Coleman (in his study of electors in Leeds) have shown, these routine gestures are not immediately discursively accessible. When questioned, electors respond according to the expected results, their political choices and orientations, or their motivations. They are far from forthcoming when it comes to discussing what they actually do when they vote, [15] reproducing the gestures that they have learned through performance, and which they continue to perform with an eye to what others are doing. [16] Civic education provides a discursive rationalisation and interpretation of the symbols, but for most electors it is only a distant memory – and the participationist norm that it cultivated has since been eroded. [17]

7A comparison between electoral rituals in France and the United Kingdom allows us to render these practices less “natural”. As these two countries have developed historically in parallel, although according to contrasting modes and rhythms, [18] it is interesting to compare the ingrained habits and political rituals that have been progressively constructed – our surprise serves as an indicator of what we no longer notice. The social practices we analyse reflect different ways of constituting political subjectivity in the two countries, and reveal the relationship between this subjectivity and the institutional context. They emphasise the ways in which the figure of the citizen comes into play in political systems that are very close and yet which differ. They differ in their ways of understanding the roles of the elector and the electoral body, of representation and of embodiment, of the citizen of the Republic or of Her Majesty’s subject participating in the designation of a sovereign Parliament, and in their relation to individual interest and the general interest.

8Here we propose to explore how this social practice has been developed by a political community that it in turn contributes to both guiding and reproducing. We will begin by discussing the theoretical approaches to ritual and their contribution to an analysis of contemporary practice. The second section recalls the historical differences in the process of institutionalisation of elections in France and Great Britain, and reveals the implications for the ritualisation of the vote. The third section compares the rituals that are performed in each case, by separating them into successive moments and underlining the differences in symbolic roles and repertoires. Finally we will mobilise these elements of analysis in a reflection on the political culture of these two countries.

Reflecting on rituals

9Metaphors of ritual are frequent in discussions and descriptions of elections, particularly in the writings of journalists. Observers of elections in France are all the more likely to resort to such metaphors because the electoral proceedings, props, codification of behaviour, and discourse evoke a religious register. However, we would like to go further and use the theoretical tools of specialists in ritual to develop our analysis. [19] Whilst the instrumental aspect of voting generally gets the most attention, the concept of ritualisation allows us to consider the symbolic aspect of this action, and its meanings.

10Rituals are formal social practices that are relatively stable, governed by rules, which involve a degree of mise en scène, and which have symbolic meaning. [20] They are (1) formal because they serve to define a relatively restrictive code of appropriate behaviour. They are (2) traditional because they are relatively invariable over time, and this recognisable repetition – although not always strictly identical – is one of the sources of their legitimacy. They are (3) governed by more or less formal rules. They also imply (4) a framework and performance of words and actions by actors invested in predefined roles. In the case of elections, practices are very strictly codified by the law and the electoral regulations; the presiding official at the polling station has a copy of the Electoral Code in order to verify protocol at any moment. [21] These practices tend to be associated with the religious [22] sphere because they have (5) a sacred signification. If we follow Emile Durkheim, [23] we can understand this sacredness as social rather than religious, and see it as associated with processes of effervescence and integration. The meaning of ritual is linked to the use of symbols that help to “limit” it and to mark the legitimacy of the practice. The power of a rite is partly linked to the way in which it is operationalised. [24]

11Rituals give meaning to our experience of the social world by creating temporal density and the feeling of social connectedness. Because of their repetition, they bestow an ahistorical dimension on a social practice. This atemporality connects today’s community to both that of the past and that of the future. Participants in ritual – whether they are actors or extras – help to reaffirm a community. [25] By conforming to a model of behaviour they create the appearance of consent, whatever the actual degree of acceptance might be, because participation implies a lack of contestation. Yet one of the specificities of ritual as a social practice is that it is generally analysed as a pure action, independent of the sincerity of the actors that are performing it. [26] This conception, which for Mary Douglas is linked to protestant Anglo-Saxon modernity, contributes to ritual being seen as a simulacrum. [27] This results in a reticence to consider the symbolic in favour of more instrumental aspects of political action. Why take into account something that is apparently “useless”? How can one help but be mistrustful of rhetoric, which is always assumed to be misleading? How can one help but be mistrustful of actions assumed to be inauthentic or motivated by social conformity [28]?

12Mary Douglas’s remark raises other questions because citizens themselves are more and more often incited to think of their actions in terms of efficiency and individual returns. [29] Yet an instrumental vision of human action saps the possibility of analysing the vote as a social symbolic practice, and reduces it to a technique, to political orientations, or to a set of sociological or other determinants. At the same time, those social sciences influenced by rational choice theory posit participation as a difficult paradox to resolve without invoking normative satisfactions (voting is a right and a responsibility) or an expressive rationale. [30] Yet, the more the instrumentality of the vote is emphasised, the more dubious it is and the more its utility is negligible – even beyond the crisis of confidence in institutional politics and electoral promises, and the rejection of representatives and institutions. [31]

13The interviews with voters conducted by Hélène Thomas, Cécile Braconnier and Jean-Yves Dormagen, and by Stephen Coleman, [32] show the complexity of the relationship that voters have with this practice, which is valued in normative terms in spite of its low practical efficacy. This ambiguity is characteristic of a ritual that links a “subjunctive world” (that is invoked and made to exist in the practice) with lived experience. [33] In the former, the voter participating in the ritual behaves “as if” their vote determined the government. In the latter, the same voter well knows that the marginal utility of his or her action is, to all extents and purposes, nil. Today’s voter believes in the efficacy of his or her participation as much as the Greeks believed in their myths; [34] but his or her participation contributes to the sacred dimension of politics. Rituals give us indications as to the construction of the “subjunctive worlds” that they create, and what is implicit in them.

14Rituals mobilise affective, psychological, and cognitive dimensions that contribute to the internalisation of ways of behaving. They define and justify social states and categories: universal suffrage has naturalised categories [35] such as citizens, candidates, elected members, state representatives, and politicians. They make contestation more difficult because citizens’ participation in the ritual can be seen as acceptance and legitimation of the process. The voting ritual allows us to behave “as if” there was consent: it is a moment of celebration and establishment of authority. Yet it opens up a space for contestation because we can refuse to participate or do so whilst subverting the behavioural rules. [36] The repertoires of this contestation are historically and geographically variable: violence, intimidation, disruption of the procedures, calls for boycott, and so forth. Abstaining, protest votes and spoilt votes, and farcical candidates [37] are all peaceful examples of this.

15Although the electoral ritual is codified and formal, the act of performance leaves room for improvisation, for appropriating and adapting the practice to the immediate context and social experience. Thinking about the election in terms of performance [38] enables us to emphasise that the ritual maintains its playful dimension – it is a moment during which the status of political leaders is thrown into question. [39] We can therefore follow Victor Turner in his analysis of inversion rituals during which the strong temporarily present themselves as vulnerable to the desires of the weak. [40] Moreover, the campaign stages and showcases collective identities by linking social demands and alternative political choices. The arguments between candidates and political parties propose a simplification of complex social questions and of the choices submitted to voters, and stylise the offer and social constitution of the political body. The election is therefore an important hiatus in ordinary life, as well as a calendar rite leading to the designation of legitimate political leaders.

Institutionalisation and ritualisation of the vote

16The vote as we know it today (individual and secret) in France and the United Kingdom was invented, developed, and learned during a process that took place over several decades. [41] There is a significant degree of contingency in legislators’ efforts to establish norms likely to resolve practical difficulties or to calm ideological disagreements. Thus the rhythm of reforms followed the rhythm of political constraints specific to each country, and thus responded to political and ideological considerations but also to practical and sometimes technical ones. [42] Table 1 provides key dates in the adoption of electoral rules in these two countries.

17Although universal male suffrage was acquired in France from 1848, it evolved much more gradually in the United Kingdom. The successively adopted texts regulated access to suffrage, [43] candidacies, the means of propaganda, and the possibilities for corruption, [44] set the day of the vote, and established procedures for voting, counting and the declaration of results. [45] British legislators tried to eliminate corruption from as early as the end of the nineteenth century, whereas this question was only really dealt with in France a century later, following several scandals. [46]

18The adoption of secret ballots was neither immediate nor consensual, [47] but it was one of the vectors of peaceful political integration of the masses. Although the vote was legally secret in France from the 1880s, in practice this was not always the case. In fact, voters often had to use a corner of the returning officer’s table to write the name of their candidate (or ask for help to do so if they couldn’t write), and then hand over their ballots in full view of everyone. In these conditions it was not always easy to keep one’s vote a secret. Individual voting was acquired in 1848 with the abolition of voting by assembly. [48] After extraordinarily long debates, the legislator finally adopted printed ballots, envelopes, and the isoloir (a curtained voting booth) in 1913. [49] At the very beginning the isoloir was ridiculed for its similarity to the Catholic confessional, but even today it remains a strange marker that voters have learned to deal with in their own ways. [50] With its closed curtain, the isoloir constitutes a striking reminder of the symbolic threshold [51] to be crossed, and the existence of a distinct space that is private, hidden, and sacred.

19Secret ballots were adopted in 1872 in the United Kingdom. In the long and complex parliamentary debates, opponents decried a practice seen as anti-patriotic, effeminate, and French; yet the then-recent invention of the ballot in the Australian colonies was a clear source of inspiration. [52] The introduction of the voting booth allowed voters to write their choices on the ballot without those on either side of them being able to see what they were writing. The use of individual booths was met with resistance [53] because it privatised the decision-making moment and eliminated hustings, public meetings which led to the nomination of representatives for the House of Commons. [54]

20This brief detour through the institutionalisation of the vote is important because the legislator, in enacting voting regulations, also established the actions and objects essential for the ritualisation process. The idea of ritualisation may seem to imply intention, determination, and foresight in the choice of procedures and symbols on the part of those codifying the ritual. For us, however, this goes too far, because by nature the meaning of symbols is destined to be interpreted differently by different groups and in different eras. [55] The successive electoral laws in the two countries therefore incorporated new objects or gestures that gradually took on an importance that was not always necessarily expected. In certain cases, the legislator’s intention was to educate the population, in others it was concerned with finding practical solutions. The choice of public buildings therefore ensured political neutrality, reinforced by removing the furniture. This contributed to preventing certain risks of violence and enabled the public practice of a private choice. [56] On the other hand, the decision to protect the secrecy of the vote explains the particular attention paid to the technology, the gestures, and the objects which preserve it. In any event, a symbolic apparatus was introduced to lend this social practice a signification that is inseparable from healthy democratic practice. It is this symbolic dimension that interests us here.

21Analysing the ritualisation of the vote allows us to make a connection between the citizen and the democratic choice of a legitimate government in a slightly magical operation that retains an element of mystery. We believe that it is important to think about the way in which the ritualisation of the vote contributes to making this social practice different from others, establishing it within its own timeframe, and creating a clearly identifiable and distinct framework, in spite of a minimalist décor that is above all characterised by the speed with which it can be pulled down and moved somewhere else. As a result, our analysis is not concerned with how individuals are transformed by their participation in the ritual, [57] or what they feel, [58] or how rituals reveal the deep values of participants. Instead we seek to contrast the symbols that are involved in the ritual to shed light on the meaning that French and British voters may give to their electoral participation.

Table 1

Key legislative steps in broadening suffrage and the regulations governing voting procedures

Table 1
France United Kingdom 1848 Introduction of universal male suffrage and concerns about the logistics of the vote and the count 1832-1867 Progressive enlargement of the electoral body 1848 Abolition of electoral assemblies of citizen voters 1872 Adoption of a bill on the organisation of elections in all constituencies, establishing the ballot (a single voting paper validated by a stamp from the electoral officer) and the booth. 1876 Change in the voting method leading to a limitation in the number of candidates and an organisation of electoral campaigns to both control votes and provide sufficient propaganda. 1883-1885 Voting operations become “general”, placed under the authority of an electoral officer, and candidates no longer have to pay for the organisation of the election. Their campaign expenses are limited for each constituency. Clarification of the criteria allowing access to suffrage: two thirds of adult males can now vote. 1913 Adoption of the Electoral Code setting out the actions and organisation of the operations of the vote, including the use of envelopes for voting slips and the isoloir 1918 Universal male suffrage, suffrage rights for women over 30 years old. Generalisation of the single round majority voting system. 1944 Women obtain suffrage rights 1928 Women over 21 obtain suffrage rights 1988 First law on funding for campaigns and political life 1950 Elimination of constituencies with multiple seats, and abolition of the university constituencies of Oxford and Cambridge.

Key legislative steps in broadening suffrage and the regulations governing voting procedures

Analysis of the electoral ritual

22Georges Balandier suggested an anthropological “detour” [59] to renew our perspective on our contemporary liberal and democratic political practices. He showed how, far from being incomparable to exotic societies, they in fact share with them the need to ensure the legitimacy of political representatives and social structures. He also mobilised the theatrical analogy [60] popularised in the 1970s by Victor Turner and Erving Goffman, and prolonged in reflections on the ritual as performance. [61] This analogy was all the more easily made given that the anthropologists of politics who have looked at contemporary societies have often focused on the spectacular rituals of power (presidential rituals for example). The metaphor of the theatre is classic among those who study elections, who stress the existence of roles, the lines spoken, audiences, and staging.

23Although he concentrates on African societies, Turner’s analyses are relevant for thinking about the specificities of the social practices we are interested in. He in fact offers a framework that allows us to break down the vote as political ritual. Turner suggests that we distinguish between the dramatic phases that together make up a “social drama”. [62] It is probably important to avoid an overly strict separation of the three phases to preserve their heuristic value and reflect on the symbolism that is associated with them. The preliminary phase (preparation or crisis) corresponds to the electoral campaign: the rival teams confront each other through images and speeches seeking to mobilise social and political identities. The essentially peaceful nature of contemporary campaigns could make us forget that for a long time one of the major concerns of the legislators was limiting violence. Rules aim to ensure equality between candidates, specifying the amount and nature of spending allowed, regulating speeches in the media or in public meetings, and overseeing propaganda material. The liminal phase is full of possibilities. Its beginning is marked by a symbolism of passage and separation that is both temporal and spatial, which separates the important moment from both everyday life and the gaze of others. [63] The final or post-liminal phase of declaration, and especially interpretation, of the results is now widely dominated by the media. We analyse ritualisation in these three stages, which have slightly different temporal definitions in the two countries. In France, for example, we can consider that the liminal moment transforms the individual into a citizen, whilst in the United Kingdom, it is the announcement of the results by the returning officer that transforms the candidate into elected representative.

24How do people vote in France and the United Kingdom? Through our comparison of voting rituals we can analytically identify three aspects: the frame and the objects that transform an ordinary space into a polling station (general elements that are easy to dismantle, as well as posters and codes reminding voters of the electoral rules, booths, ballots, voting registers, and envelopes); actors (the personnel supervising or conducting the voting operations and the volunteers assisting in this task, as well as candidates’ representatives, and voters); and the roles that are taken on. Certain gestures must be performed by the different participants, in the context of these roles, according to specific sequences: 1/ the opening and closing of the polling station; 2/ the stages of the vote for electors; 3/ the beginning and end of operations and vote counting; and 4/ the announcement of results. These gestures are sometimes accompanied by specific and codified statements, and stereotypical oratory.

25In both countries, the polling stations are located in public buildings. The electoral furnishings and decorations are basic, necessarily portable, and able to be installed and dismantled rapidly. Posters listing electoral rules, booths/isoloirs, and urnes/ballot boxes are the main markers of this social practice. The symbolic weight of these utilitarian objects is activated in context. [64] The procedures to verify the voter’s identity confer on the individual a social identity as a citizen, [65] potentially renewing the symbolic cost of their enrolment. [66] The proceedings generally take place in silence which contrasts with the activities on the street. It is a more or less contemplative moment during which attention is focused on the voters, those engaged in the ritual and responsible for choosing their political leaders.

26Table 2 enables us to compare the formalities that each person performing the voting ritual must accomplish, whether as officials or voters.

Table 2

How a polling station operates[67]

Table 2
France United Kingdom “The voter stands before a table where the voting slips and envelopes are presented. The official verifies that the voter is registered and then he or she takes one envelope and then a voting slip for each of the candidates. It is important that the voter takes several voting slips in order to preserve the confidentiality of his or her choice. The voter can also take the voting material that was sent to his or her home to the polling station. The voter goes into the isoloir and draws the curtain. This is compulsory in order to guarantee the secret and personal nature of the vote. Having put the voting slip of his or her chosen candidate into the envelope, the voter then proceeds to the table with the ballot box. The presiding official or their replacement verifies the identity of the voter by reading aloud his or her name on the identity card or the electoral card that the voter presents. The presiding official establishes that the voter has only one envelope but he or she must not touch it. The voter places the envelope on the top of the chute. The official pulls the lever and the envelope falls into the ballot box. Then the official solemnly pronounces the words ‘Has Voted’. The voter then signs the voting register, next to his or her name. The register is generally managed by another official situated next to the ballot box to facilitate operations. If a voter is unable to sign, another voter may sign in their place indicating ‘the voter is unable to sign’. If an elector who has voted refuses to sign, the official responsible for the register will sign in his or her place. This will be noted in the minutes of the voting operations, and the names of the voters concerned will be recorded. The electoral card or certificate is then returned to the voter once it has been stamped with the date of the election in the space provided. There is no stamp if the voter has not provided his or her electoral card.” The voter stands before the table of the presiding official and the electoral officer and states his or her name and address, to verify that he or she is enrolled on the register and is indeed a voter. He or she may present a polling card which indicates his or her enrolment number. A line is ruled through their name on the electoral roll using a pencil, and their enrolment number is read aloud. The electoral officer inscribes the enrolment number from the roll on the stub of the ballot papers, next to the number of the ballot given to the voter. The numbered ballot is stamped with the official stamp that validates it. The ballot is folded and then given to the voter unfolded so that all the candidates’ names are visible. The elector goes into the voting booth and puts a cross on his or her ballot paper next to the candidate of his or her choice. The elector folds the ballot paper and then shows the presiding official the stamp on the back, before inserting the ballot paper in the black padlocked ballot box.

How a polling station operates[67]

27For most electors their participation in the ritual is finished when they leave the polling station. However, the station itself continues to function without them for several hours. This phase of the ritual generally goes unnoticed. Not many people participate in this aspect of it, often out of ignorance, even more often out of indifference. Political activists and more active citizens can thus witness the magical moment when an aggregate of individual decisions is transformed into a collective decision.

28However, the very great majority of voters satisfy themselves with following the results on the television, or the radio, or even wait for newspapers the following day. In both countries the post-liminal phase is a media event, [68] and post-election parties are a spectacle in themselves. In France, the first figures to be announced come from stations that have already been counted, whilst in the United Kingdom, extrapolation from exit polls to the number of seats is extremely complex. The different television channels use their correspondents to compete to bring local results [69] as quickly as possible to their audiences. They mobilise electronic gadgets (such as the BBC’s “swingometer”) and invite experts, commentators and politicians to interpret the “message” sent by the electoral body, to explain the movements of swing voters, and the effects of electoral promises on different social groups and categories of voters. The popularity of these programmes is linked, however, to the significance of the stakes of the election, and declines as participation does. [70] In the United Kingdom, the post-liminal phase finishes in the early morning with the rapid establishment of a new government and a series of rituals governing the hand-over of power (audience with the Queen, official arrival at Downing Street, the red box brandished in front of Number Ten, appointment of Cabinet Ministers). The French transition, that is, the taking of office, is less spectacular and less rapid.

Voting rituals in France

29In France, electoral campaigns are historically embedded in the public space. Electoral law sets out the duration and the modalities of the campaign, in particular the conditions for access to public space and voters, and the publications of polls and results. Numbered official notices placed in public spaces ensure that all voters can read the candidates’ official posters and announcements about public meetings. These protocols are the result of a need to limit illegal bill posting in the early twentieth century. [71] At the beginning of the twenty-first century, these illegal posters are still unavoidable, even though posting them is an infringement that is liable to incur criminal penalties. Commercial posting is prohibited. Official radio and television broadcasts are free, and the speaking time of each of the protagonists is timed. [72] Permissible propaganda material is strictly controlled, particularly in the choice of colours, and is limited. Canvassing is generally limited to public spaces, such as markets and streets, [73] but electoral meetings (particularly those in which candidates confront one other) have almost entirely disappeared. However, voters do receive an official letter by post which contains the voting papers and campaign material for the different candidates. They have several days to study these documents. Given the success of modern electoral marketing techniques, and the re-discovery of the role of personal contact, [74] door-to-door techniques have been re-imported from the United States and private meetings (sometimes called “Tupperware” meetings) have also reappeared.

30The phase of the vote itself is the most densely ritualised in France. The physical and temporal break allowing the voter to be isolated from social pressure was obtained in 1913. [75] It begins with the end of the official campaign on the Friday evening [76] and ends with the closure of the polling stations on Sunday evening. [77] It also includes a day of reflection, a temporal marker that prepares the voter for accomplishing a duty that has been sanctified by speeches and manifestos since the Third Republic. [78]

31After verifying their enrolment in that particular voting station (first identity check), the French voter takes an envelope and a number of voting slips (if she or he wishes, or has lost those sent by post). Each voting slip was printed by the candidate, according to the stipulation in the legislation regarding the thickness of the paper, its transparency, typographic fonts, and colours. Then, in the isoloir, with the curtain closed, [79] he or she expresses their considered choice, by putting one voting slip into the envelope. Depending on how many people are waiting, the voter then queues to approach the ballot box and the presiding official. The presiding official reads aloud the name printed on the electoral or identity card he or she is handed. One of the other two officials checks that the name is on the register (second identity check). Only then does the voter place his/her envelope in the chute of the transparent ballot box. [80] Pronouncing the words “has voted”, the official pulls the lever and – as has been the case since 1913 – the envelope falls into the box without the official having touched it. [81] The fact that a specific phrase is uttered is significant. As John R. Searle wrote, [82] when an important new institutional status is awarded there is the expectation that it will be explicitly consecrated by an act of language in the form of a proclamation (“has voted”), according to strict rules and by a duly authorised person (the president of the polling station), who simultaneously performs a symbolic gesture (opening the chute and allowing the envelope to fall into the ballot box). The voter, thus recognised as having participated in the vote, seals this recognition by signing his or her name (third identity check). One of the officials stamps the electoral card, if it is provided (it is not compulsory) (possible fourth identity check). The voting sequence is closed: most citizens stop being actors in the ritual at this point.

32However, the ritual is not entirely finished. There is still an important place for the electoral body. At 6pm (8pm in major towns), the president of the polling station announces that the doors will be closed and invites those not wishing to attend the count to leave. Electors have volunteered or have been recruited during the course of the day. [83] They take their places around tables of four. [84] They receive large envelopes of 100 ballots, prepared previously by the officials. In a little more than an hour the votes will have been counted and re-counted, the blank ballots will have been countersigned and the score sheets completed. [85] In big cities the vote counters do not know each other and don’t talk much. [86] Novices follow the instructions and example of the more experienced vote counters. The electoral body is therefore responsible for the count and the validation of the results, under the authority and control of local elected authorities. In this phase, partly hidden from the public because the doors have been closed, protocol is strict and the officers are careful to follow the procedures precisely to avoid invalidating the procedure. The president and the officials finalise the count and the papers necessary. They then take them to the Town Hall where the results of the polling stations in the constituency are combined and sent to the prefecture. The official results are published immediately by the services of the prefecture, [87] without any fanfare. The citizens who participated in the count go home to follow the results on the television because, in being present at or participating in the count, they only know the results of their particular polling station.

Voting rituals in the United Kingdom

33While the French electoral campaign is dominated by leafleting in marketplaces, British political activists scour the countryside soliciting voters in their homes. They go door-knocking and put leaflets in letterboxes. [88] In the nineteenth century, electoral canvassing was conceived as a way of encouraging people to enrol to vote. It was indeed an essential way of getting to know the candidates, who until 1969 were only identified by their names on the ballot paper (with no mention of their party affiliation). Canvassing, which brings politics into the private sphere of the family home, [89] is not only the opportunity to laud the merits of the party’s candidate and policies but also allows the electors to express their concerns, preferences, and voting intentions. As a result, a good canvassing operation can get a close understanding of the forces at work, and in marginal or targeted seats it contributes to maximising the electoral turnout of party sympathisers.

34From as early as 1880, campaign rules were adopted to guarantee equality between candidates in each constituency, and to set a strict framework in terms of electoral expenditure and advertising. Candidates cannot spend more than a specific amount, which is legally limited and proportional to the number of voters in the constituency, and which varies according to the type of contest. Donations are controlled, as are their sources and the way they are spent. [90] Moreover, a deposit of 500 pounds sterling is payable by candidates to ensure that only serious candidates run. [91] It is reimbursed if they attain 5% of the vote. The law requires that the media give all candidates in a constituency equivalent treatment. Because of the limit on spending, candidates mainly rely on posters voluntarily displayed by supporters who agree to have colourful campaign posters in their windows visible to others. The electoral legislation essentially concerns the local level and most of these rules don’t apply at the national level. The most visible party campaign posters are therefore national, commercial (on rented advertising space), and large-scale, because spending at the national level is not limited. [92] Groups that are fielding more than fifty candidates may also have official free airtime on television and radio.

35However, the voting period itself is not especially marked symbolically; the electoral campaign is only suspended on the eve of the vote. The election is held on a Thursday, [93] in public buildings such as community centres or schools, which are often identified by hand-made signs reading “polling station”. All posters are prohibited within 100 metres of the polling station. Although polling cards exist, they are no more necessary than identity cards. The voter is only required to be able to recite [94] his or her name and address in order to receive the official ballot with his or her enrolment number, duly folded, stamped and validated. Since 1872, the British voter has marked a cross next to the candidate of his or her choice on the ballot paper, in the booth which shields his or her choice from the public gaze. [95] He or she then inserts the ballot, re-folded, into the ballot box and leaves the polling station. [96] The identity check is a quick and simple formality, and both the décor and the ceremony are minimalist. [97]

36Finally, the most remarkable moment is the encounter with the party activists or “tellers” who wait outside the polling station. Each wearing a rosette with party colours, they ask the voters for their electoral card number or their address. When compared to the canvassing sheets, these numbers enable the parties to verify that all their potential supporters have voted. If this is not the case, the activists then go to the houses, telephone them, or send them text-messages and emails to remind them about the elections. In very close seats these campaign techniques are decisive and can sometimes help results swing one way or another. [98]

37Whilst in France the voting procedure is rich with symbols that grab the attention of voters, in the United Kingdom it is undoubtedly the counting procedure in which the most political symbolism is concentrated, whilst remaining focused on the constituencies themselves and the candidates’ speeches accepting the results. At 10pm the stations close and the black ballot boxes are transferred under police escort to the general counting station of the constituency or county. Electoral operations are placed under the control and responsibility of local government officials. Voters and elected representatives have no part to play in this. The state provides a service to the candidates, by ensuring an equitable and smoothly run campaign and election. [99] The centralisation of the counting operations increases efficiency and speed. In certain towns, several constituencies are counted in the same place, sometimes a gymnasium or a large community hall taken over for the occasion. The count is performed by employees recruited specifically for this task. The candidates and their representatives remain at a distance and can only follow the successive handling of votes from afar. It is therefore impossible for them to know the origin of the ballots or to see the register numbers inscribed upon them. [100] When the ballot boxes are opened, the officials mix the ballots so that results for a particular polling station cannot be known. [101] The ballots are then counted and placed in piles before being distributed to the dozens of counters, who open them and place them in boxes corresponding to each of the candidates before counting them. The electoral system is based on a simple majority, and the scores have become much tighter given that the number of small candidates has increased with the decline in the two-party system. If there is the slightest doubt, the candidates demand a re-count, or several. [102] The 50,000 to 70,000 ballots of the constituency must then be recounted one by one. In spite of the dexterity of the employees (sometimes bank employees), this phase lasts well into the night.

38When the results are established, the doors open and the returning officer proclaims them before the candidates, lined up on the stage and identifiable by their party rosette, and the audience of activists, journalists and interested citizens. [103] The public observes the faces of the candidates, tries to read their reactions, and gossips about their ability to control their emotions. [104] In turn the candidates each pronounce a speech accepting the results. They never fail to thank the organisers of the vote for the smooth operations of the election and the count. This is the most solemn moment of the ritual and it echoes the old hustings, in its more festive, demonstrative, and tribal aspect. This can be seen in the multi-coloured presence of the Monster Raving Loony Party candidates [105] or the cries of joy from the winning teams. The officer’s speech announcing the number of votes obtained by each candidate is the equivalent of the “has voted” announcement in France. It marks the closure of the liminal phase, the attribution of a new status – here it is the election of a new parliament rather than the role of the citizen.

Different conceptions of the citizen and public space

39Comparable and yet strikingly diverse, electoral processes enable us to reflect on the historical construction of liberal democracies and the apprenticeship of the vote. Beyond an analysis of the institutionalisation of this practice, thinking in terms of ritualisation allows us to emphasise the symbolic repertoires that are mobilised and which contribute to guiding emotions, and to invoking specific collective representations. Two avenues appear important here: the construction of a relationship between politics and citizenship, and the contemporary crisis of confidence in political institutions.

Constructing and guiding relations to politics

40It is tempting to look for religious symbolism in political ritual, and the visual similarities between the isoloir and the confessional are difficult to ignore. The Third Republic was created in the shadow of conservative monarchic Catholicism and on the basis of universal suffrage. In spite of an intentionally modest symbolic apparatus, its objectives for educating the populace were implemented through civic instruction and republican acculturation, and by efforts to instil civic devotion. [106] However there is no need to invoke religion to analyse the vote as a symbolic social practice and to focus on its meaning in contemporary societies.

41The introduction of secret ballots was seen by legislators as a way of mastering the expression of democratic sentiments during the electoral process and limiting their violence. [107] The concern of these legislators for an economy of emotions is not disconnected from the process of civilisation, [108] as Coleman notes for the British context. He argues that the isolation of the voter plays a role in the process of rationalising the vote and contributes to guiding behaviour. [109] Similarly we can see that the triumph of reason over passion is at the heart of the French construction of an abstract generic individual-citizen, whose singularity is somehow erased. [110] Although some consider that the physical separation connected with secret voting may encourage emotions such as shame and isolation, [111] we feel that it is more important to note the mobilisation of emotions engendered by the ritualisation than to specify what emotions are actually felt. [112]

42The symbolic signification of gestures and objects associated with guaranteeing the secrecy of the vote [113] were not necessarily anticipated, even though the parliamentary debates showed that legislators were sometimes concerned with reflecting on this aspect. What is of more interest to us is the contemporary social practice that draws attention to an individual expressing a personal choice concerning the legitimate holders of power. This choice is secret but it is made in public, in a strictly controlled environment, and generally in a silent, even reverential, atmosphere. The voter moves through successive symbols that set the moment of the vote apart: the electoral period is an abnormal period of politicisation and articulation of identities. [114] The polling station is calm and the décor minimalist, the identity checks, moving into the isoloir and signing the register all emphasise the individual dimension. The solemn words of the presiding officer, the envelope visible in the transparent ballot box (in France) and the presence of tellers (in the United Kingdom) all mark the transition to the outside space. Then the count, the announcement of the results, and the interpretations of the voters’ message over the course of the electoral evening are the concluding phase, and mark the beginning of the return to everyday life.

43The practice of the secret ballot also leads to the internalisation of this requirement of secrecy, which may have several distinct connotations: voters may insist on keeping their electoral preferences to themselves, whether they are reluctant to admit a choice that might shock or require justification, or whether they remain unsure of their choice after the fact (they may still be hesitant in the voting booth, and regret their vote afterwards). [115] This tension about the private nature of electoral choices is striking when we consider the practice of “telling” – many voters are uncomfortable or reticent to give their enrolment number to the activists outside the station, others only give it to their party representatives. [116]

44In France attention is focused on the mysterious choice that the isoloir and the envelope together block from the public gaze. At the final moment, the elector is alone with his or her conscience and must deliberate internally, symbolically detached from social connections. The curtain hides the voter from the world but it also hides the world from the voter. This is what allows him or her to insert the chosen voting slip into the envelope without any interference. The voter therefore expresses their choice away from any pressure that could be exerted by communities or traditions, [117] as though “cut off from the communities that hamper the pure expression of reason”. [118] In this moment, he or she is the incarnation of the sovereign people (as an electoral body). This is an idealised individual, supposed to be able to find an enlightened choice through the application of reason and of a republican sense of the general interest. [119] Two major symbols are thus mobilised: the common good and the individual. The construction of the individual-citizen is accompanied by a sanctification of the republic and the public space, in opposition to the domestic and private sphere (which is the domain of religion in the French secular tradition).

45The isolation of the voter (who deliberates and then votes) is symbolically broken by his or her name being called. The solemn declaration “has voted” transforms the individual into a citizen taking part in the process of collective decision-making. The fastidious checking of the voter’s identity accentuates the individual dimension of the liminal phase. The lack of physical contact between the ballot and anyone other than the voter also accentuates the symbolic importance of secrecy. The voter blends into the electoral body, [120] just as his or her ballot disappears into the mass of envelopes in the ballot box. The republican tradition is based on the fiction of a contemplative abstract voter voting according to their conscience and with an awareness of the consequence of their vote. Ironically, this vision contributes to making the role of political parties suspicious, because they defend sectorial interests. [121]

46British democracy is based on a liberal approach. Sovereignty belongs to Parliament which draws on deliberation and pluralism in order to justify the legitimacy of its choices: the legitimate collective decision is the product of an aggregation of individual interests. [122] The suspension of the campaign the day before the election only leaves British voters a few hours to consult their consciences. This is justified if we consider that voters make their decisions depending on their individual interests, stemming from their membership of social groups, and from their distinct identities. Indeed, it is because these choices are supposedly linked to individuals that the British can accept practices such as canvassing (i.e. divulging their intention to vote to the representatives of their chosen candidate) and telling (revealing their electoral numbers to party activists outside the polling station so they can work out which voters have not yet voted). Yet the voters interviewed by Coleman evoked their resistance to the idea of talking politics and to the idea that someone might seek to influence their vote. [123]

47In the United Kingdom, the right to vote was obtained as the extension of privilege to an increasing number of groups. The rules historically varied between constituencies. The slow process of standardisation hindered any national process of ritualisation. The practical measures adopted by the legislator to organise the vote ultimately seem not very rich in symbols. There is no curtain isolating the voter, no complex protocol for ensuring secrecy once the vote has been made, no solemn gesture or phrase to mark the insertion of the ballot, which disappears into a black box. In fact the role of the state is to ensure fair competition between the candidates, as defenders of private interests, whilst preventing disturbances to public order. [124] The individual is seen as autonomous and in no way “obliged to society for his own person or abilities”. [125] In spite of effort and investment by Labour governments to move in this direction, there are still no identity cards. To date the protection of citizens’ rights makes it illegal for officials to ask voters for proof of identity at the polling station. On the other hand, the traceability of the vote is perfectly acceptable in the United Kingdom: the vote is secret but the ballots are numbered. It is thus possible to identify the voter. [126] Indeed, the relation between citizens and the state organising the ballot implies that the latter can investigate in cases of contestation (identity theft for example), and thus, if required, produce the ballots (fraudulent or not) in court. Ballots are therefore preserved for years without voters paying much attention to this fact. This is possible because of a historically established (but markedly declining) trust in political institutions.

48* * *

49The ritual is important for what it does, rather than for what it signifies. The extent to which behaviour exactly conforms to a model matters less than the fact of performing specific actions, [127] and, in so doing, of constructing and affirming an identity. What matters is what the participants do, not what they are or what they think when they perform the ritual actions. [128] We can also say that ritualisation contributes to producing consent, and at least the appearance of consensus regarding norms. By participating in the vote, the voters self-legitimate as citizens; [129] by being counted they ensure that they count. Authoritarian regimes which organise rigged elections do not overlook the fact that the organisation of a ritual contributes to proclaiming legitimacy, even if the performance of the ritual does not mean that voters are fooled by it.

50The increasing number of abstentionists raises questions to which it is difficult, even impossible, to respond decisively and uniformly. We have known for a long time that it is important to distinguish non-voters by conviction from intermittent or occasional non-voters. Does this reflect a rejection of the political system or parties, or professional political figures? Does it represent a non-vote by conviction, a rejection of projects, or a protest against the difficulty in distinguishing between candidates and programmes? Participating is a sign that we have accepted the conventions – whatever else we might think. In refusing to participate in symbolic social practice, do non-voters manifest their refusal of the process, or do they contest the myth of a community choosing its destiny? Yet we cannot say that those who participate believe they can actually control governments, or that they think that sovereignty belongs to them and that their individual vote has an impact on the final decision. We can only say that they behave “as if” that were the case. What about non-voters? One could say that non-voters contribute to undermining the authority of the process and thus its results by providing no alternative to that which they reject. The partial [130] recognition of blank votes in France since 2014 addresses this concern. On the other hand, other legislative responses to declining turnouts might contribute to accelerating the phenomenon because they are typically based on an instrumental and utilitarian analysis of the vote. In trying to limit the costs of participation, they contribute to eroding the symbolic content of the practice. Voting in a supermarket, as has been tested in the United Kingdom (and which is also practised in certain counties in the United States) [131] may help to not lose time voting on the way to or from work, when the election is held on a working day. However, the performative and processual nature of the ritual is eroded. As the polling station is no longer closed off from the outside world, its symbolism is also eroded. The citizen is recast in the image of the consumer, hesitating between candidates as they might between brands of washing powder.

51Postal voting and electronic voting raise other questions. After the initial enthusiasm of the 2000s, experiments with electronic voting have become rarer because of difficulties inherent in the technology itself – notably in terms of transparency of procedures, security, and preservation of voting secrecy. [132] In the United States, it seems that these initiatives were either ineffective or counter-productive. [133] If we follow the argument that we have developed here, these failures may be linked to the fact that by pushing the isolation of the individual voter to the extreme, these new practices neglect the social context of the vote. They disconnect the voters from the network of social interactions that may impact upon their behaviour. This social aspect of the vote is now even studied by authors who are trying, yet again, to resolve the paradox of the rational voter. [134]

52The symbolic impoverishment of the electoral ritual appears finally in the evolution of the television spectacles provided for voters in the last phase of this ritual – the announcement of the results and the return to the normality of a legitimate government and a spectator electorate. Initially, we might consider that the means deployed have contributed to staging an election as a process of national unity and democratic celebration. The results are the only phase that can really be treated as a media event with a photogenic emotional content. However, focusing the attention on results necessarily implies an instrumental vision of the process. This is to the detriment of the ultimately much more private process that we have analysed in this article. The media may well play a role in increasing disengagement from politics. [135] Without trying to find a cause that is impossible to specify, it seems that the decline in participation (whether linked to trust in parties or in institutions) translates into a decrease in media coverage (shorter and fewer programmes) and audiences. The reverse is quite probably true too.

53The objective of this overly brief study was to explore the symbolic nature of a social practice that is central to our liberal democracies, at a time when the utilitarian analysis that it is often subject to has begun to show its limits. We consider that a historical sociology of the institutionalisation of the vote sheds light on national particularities. It enables us to compare the symbolic repertoires used in each context and to explore the significations associated with them. On the other hand, we think that considering the vote as ritual – that is to say as a formal social practice that is relatively stable, governed by rules, solemnly staged, and imbued with symbolic signification – helps to understand the role that it plays both in social and political integration, and for the actors themselves. Indeed, participation is not only important for the voter because of the results, of the content of the electoral programmes, or of assumed individual efficacy. Of course, participation in the ritual legitimates the results, including in the eyes of those whose candidates lost, or of those who could have challenged the “fairness” of the process but who do not. [136] Through its symbolic nature, this practice mobilises cognitive, expressive, and emotional dimensions, and contributes to the construction of collective identities. It is a factor in social integration, an identity marker, a dramatic and celebratory process, closely associated with the legitimacy of political leaders in democratic regimes.

54Analysed in this way, these practices suggest structural and contrasting conceptions of citizenship as it has developed historically. The adoption of secret voting is essential in both countries but the way it is staged is specific to each, partly because the construction of citizenship is achieved in different institutional, religious, and political contexts. Our analysis challenges the simplistic opposition by Anglo-American observers of the French political tradition as collectivist and republican, and the British tradition as individualist, liberal and anti-collectivist. The two traditions are imbued with complex tensions regarding conceptions of the general interest, and with the ways in which democratic choices should be and are obtained. [137] The driving force of British electoral reform is the fight against corruption and the reluctant extension of a formerly aristocratic privilege in a society that fears the growing influence of the masses in the political process. The paradox is that the state, which must guarantee the fairness of the elections, is at least partly lacking the means to do so because it cannot control the candidates nor their campaigns. Private interest is the legitimate inspiration for the vote, even if it is informed by a national perspective. On the other hand, French electoral ritualisation is closely linked to a republican construction, to efforts to educate the masses, and to the clearly understood interests of elected representatives whose power derives from their electoral legitimacy rather than their personal status. It is founded on an idealised citizen capable of identifying the general interest and of voting in favour of it. [138]


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    Paul Guyonnet, “Le vote comme produit historique de la pensée magique”, Revue française de science politique, 44(6), 1994, 1054-78.
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    Emma Crewe, Lords of Parliament. Manners, Rituals and Politics (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005); Shirin M. Rai, “Analysing ceremony and ritual in Parliament”, The Journal of Legislative Studies, 16(3), 2010, 284-97.
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    Jack M. Barbalet, “Secret voting and political emotions”, Mobilization. An International Quarterly, 7(2), 2002, 129-40; Malcom Crook, Tom Crook, “The advent of the secret ballot in Britain and France, 1789-1914: from public assembly to private compartment”, History, 92(308), 2007, 449-71; and “Reforming voting practices in a global age: the making and remaking of the modern secret ballot in Britain, France and the United States c.1600-c.1950”, Past & Present, 212(1), August 2011, 199-237; Peter Bryant, “The Australian ballot: not the secret ballot”, Australian Journal of Political Science, 41(1), 2006, 39-50.
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    Stephen Coleman, How Voters Feel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013). His approach is very different from Philippe Braud’s analysis, which looks particularly at the role of emotions in politics. See Philippe Braud, Le jardin des délices démocratiques (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 1991).
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    Mark W. Brewin, Celebrating Democracy. The Mass-Mediated Ritual of Election Day (New York: Peter Lang, 2008).
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    Marian Sawer, Elections. Full, Free and Fair (Annandale: The Federation Press, 2001); M. W. Brewin, Celebrating Democracy; R. Romanelli (ed.), How Did They Become Voters?
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    Romain Bertrand, Jean-Louis Briquet, Peter Pels, The Hidden History of the Secret Ballot (London: Hurst, 2007).
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    David I. Kertzer, Ritual, Politics and Power (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988); Sally F. Moore, Barbara G. Myerhoff (eds) Secular Ritual (Assen: Uitgeverij Van Gorcum, 1977).
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    S. Coleman, How Voters Feel,; Y. Déloye, “L’élection au village…”.
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    As Ernest Gellner might have said, the voter is an individual who “avoids blunders”: see Ernest Gellner, “L’animal qui évite les gaffes, ou un faisceau d’hypothèses”, in Jean Leca, Pierre Birnbaum (eds) Sur l’individualisme (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 1991), 25-44. As a result, any change (the format of the ballot-paper, moving the polling stations, a new voting method, etc.) is likely to create a certain amount of confusion initially.
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    Céline Braconnier, Jean-Yves Dormagen, La démocratie de l’abstention: aux origines de la démobilisation en milieu populaire (Paris: Gallimard, 2007), 208.
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    Both of these countries recognised civil rights in the eighteenth century, political rights in the nineteenth century, and social rights in mid-twentieth century, but where France proceeded with revolutions and regime change, the British elites preferred to use reform to avoid them.
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    The studies of ritual constitutes an academic field in itself, close to religious and anthropological studies. See, in particular, Catherine Bell, Ritual, Perspectives and Dimensions (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998). In this respect we do not follow Jack Goody’s affirmation that the polysemy of the concept obscures the analysis more than it sheds light on it: Jack Goody, “Against ritual: loosely structured thoughts on a loosely defined topic”, in S.F. Moore, B.G. Myerhoff (eds) Secular Ritual, 25-35 (32).
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    Y. Déloye, “L’élection au village….”.
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    For suffragettes, as well as for naturalised citizens, obtaining the right to vote is synonymous with recognition and integration in the political community.
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    Adam B. Seligman et al., Ritual and its Consequences. An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 103. This perspective is in contrast with the spirit of the Japanese tea ritual according to Sen Soshitsu (Vie du thé, esprit du thé (Paris: Arléa, 2014)), a Japanese Tea Master, who considers that the sincerity of the host (l’invitant) is the very principle of the ritual.
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    Mary Douglas, De la souillure: Essai sur les notions de pollution et de tabou (Paris: La Découverte 1992), 80. On the other hand, in the context of French Catholicism, the comparison between vote and liturgy is an easy metaphor. Yet voting appears as a “poor” ritual, because it is short-lived, and only faintly marked symbolically in space, objects and actions (F. Bon “Le vote: fragment d’un discours electoral”, 178).
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    Daniel Gaxie, Le cens caché. Inégalités culturelles et ségrégation politique (Paris: Seuil, 1978).
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    Loïc Blondiaux, “Mort et résurrection de l’électeur rationnel: les métamorphoses d’une problématique incertaine”, Revue française de science politique, 46(5), 1996, 753-91.
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    Colin Hay, Why We Hate Politics (Cambridge: Polity, 2007).
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    Hélène Thomas, “Personnes âgées et vote: les significations plurielles de la participation électorale dans la vieillesse”, Politix, 6(22), 1993, 104-18; C. Braconnier, J.-Y. Dormagen, La démocratie de l’abstention; S. Coleman, How voters feel.
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    A. B. Seligman et al., Ritual.
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    Paul Veyne, Les Grecs ont-ils cru à leurs mythes? Essai sur l’imagination constituante (Paris: Seuil, 1983).
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    Mary Douglas, How Institutions Think (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1986).
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    Nicholas B. Dirks, “Ritual and resistance: subversion as a social fact”, in Douglas E. Haynes, Gyan Prakash (eds), Contesting Power. Resistance and Everyday Social Relations in South Asia (Oakland: University of California Press, 1992), 213-38 (220).
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    For example, in 2002 a monkey (the mascot of the local football club) was elected mayor in the town of Hartlepool (UK). In the same year, left-wing voters publicly contemplated using gloves or laundry pegs when they cast their votes for Jacques Chirac in the second round of the presidential elections, before calls to public order and respect for the dignity of the event were issued in the media.
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    Victor Turner, The Anthropology of Performance (New York: PAJ Publications, 1986); C. Bell, Ritual. 95.
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    As, for instance, in the French presidential debate of 1988 in which the then President François Mitterrand persisted in calling Jacques Chirac “Prime Minister”, whilst the latter made largely unsuccessful attempts to reduce the outgoing president to the status of candidate..
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    Victor Turner, Le phénomène du rituel. Structure et contre-structure (Paris: PUF, 1990 (Ethnologies)), 169.
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    There is an abundant literature on the institutionalisation of the vote, particularly in France, and we encourage readers to consult it for more details on the parliamentary debates, the learning of practices, and so forth. See notes 2 and 3, p. 42 above.
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    Stefano Bartolini “Enfranchisement, equality and turnout in the European democratisation process: a preliminary comparative analysis”, Working Papers, ICSP, Barcelona, 1996.
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    Because of the difficulty in proving freeholder tax payments, or indeed residency, and because of the diversity in requirements in different counties and boroughs, it was often necessary to hire a lawyer in order to enrol to vote. Given the slow pace at which the electoral registers were compiled it was not unusual for thousands of voters to die, or move to another part of the country, in between the time they enrolled to vote and when polling took place. Deliberate abstention was probably rare, to judge by the high levels of electoral participation: 87% in 1910. G. R. Searle, A New England? Peace and War 1886-1916 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 134.
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    G.R. Searle, A New England?, 136-7.
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    Until 1885, voting was open for several days in many British constituencies; hence the need for padlocked ballot boxes. See Richard Rose, Politics in England. An Interpretation (Boston: Little, Brown and Co, 1964), 103; Robert Blackburn, The Electoral System in Britain (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. In 1918, a single day was chosen for the whole country (G.R. Searle, A New England?, 831-2). Since 1931, elections have been held on a Thursday.
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    Fifteen laws and decrees were adopted between 1988 and 2010. These texts limit electoral expenses for all elections. They impose transparency in campaign and party accounts, prohibit donations by corporations and set a limit on donations by individuals, and generally regulate the financing of political life.
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    Y. Déloye, O.Ihl, L’acte de vote, 196-208.
  • [48]
    This allowed a physical and intellectual individualisation of the citizen’s vote. However, initially the procedure imposed a system whereby the voters of each constituency arrived in a procession preceded by the mayor in the main town where the polling station stood in order to vote one after the other at the call of their name. This practice was eventually abandoned and citizens could vote whenever they chose during the polling day. Philippe Tanchoux, Les procedures électorales en France de la fin de l’Ancien Regime à la Première Guerre Mondiale (Paris: Editions du CTHS, 2004), 442-8.
  • [49]
    The texts give only brief details but suppliers rapidly proposed their services to the prefectures (A. Garrigou, Les secrets de l’isoloir; P. Tanchoux, Les procédures électorales; Y. Déloye, O.Ihl, L’acte de vote).)
  • [50]
    Y. Déloye, “L’élection au village…”.
  • [51]
    Yves Déloye, “Le bureau de vote”, Regards sur l’actualité, 329, 2007, 45-51.
  • [52]
    Australia adopted the ballot in 1856; see Graeme Orr, “The ritual and aesthetic in electoral law”, Federal Law Review, 32(3), 2004, 31-2; P. Brent, “The Australian ballot: not the secret ballot”, 48.
  • [53]
    Jack M. Barbalet, Emotion, Social Theory, and Social Structure. A Macrosociological Approach (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 132.
  • [54]
    Hustings allowed candidates to address the voters directly from a stage in a public place, a pub for example, and to respond to their questions in an ambiance that was often drunken and sometimes violent (M. Crook, T. Crook, “The advent of the secret ballot in Britain and France…”). In Australia, where hustings were prohibited during the 1890s, the pacification of procedures facilitated the passage of the vote for women (M. Sawer (ed.), Elections…, 3-9). It must be noted however that political meetings long remained a popular distraction, rivalling football and adopting the same tactics to attract crowds. Thus, in 1887, 50,000 people attended Gladstone’s speech in Swansea (G.R. Searle, A New England…, 134-5).
  • [55]
    Symbols are effectively objects, acts, relations, or ambiguous linguistic forms which bear multiple significations and which are likely to provoke emotions and action; Abner Cohen, Two-Dimensional Man. An Essay on the Anthropology of Power and Symbolism in Complex Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), 23.
  • [56]
    For a detailed study of the procedures adopted in this sense after 1870, see P. Tanchoux, Les procédures électorales…, 524-34.
  • [57]
    Arnold Van Gennep, Les rites de passage (Paris: Picard, 2011 [1st edn 1909]). We could however consider that the individual becomes a citizen through taking part in the voting ritual – and reactivates his or her citizenship each time their electoral card is stamped. They are therefore integrated into the political community through the act of voting.
  • [58]
    S. Coleman, How Voters Feel.
  • [59]
    Georges Balandier, Le détour. Pouvoir et modernité (Paris: Fayard, 1985). See also Marc Abélès, “Anthropologie politique de la modernité”, l’Homme, 32(121) 1992, 15-30.
  • [60]
    Georges Balandier, Le pouvoir sur scènes (Paris: Fayard, 2006 [1st edn 1980]).
  • [61]
    C. Bell, Ritual…. 73. See also Don Handelman, Models and Mirrors. Towards an Anthropology of Public Events (New York: Berghahn Books, 1998); S. F. Moore, B. G. Myerhoff (eds) Secular Ritual.
  • [62]
    Victor Turner, Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors. Symbolic Action in Human Society (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975).
  • [63]
    V. Turner, Forest of Symbols, 95.
  • [64]
    V. Turner, Forest of Symbols, 19.
  • [65]
    S. Coleman, How Voters Feel, 96-7.
  • [66]
    C. Braconnier, J.-Y. Dormagen, La démocratie de l’abstention…, 227-9.
  • [67]
    The British Electoral Commission publishes a brochure for the polling station officials. This is consultable online at <>. In the run-up to the general elections of 7 May 2015, detailed instructions were also available for the electoral officers, in keeping with legislation (Representation of the People Acts, 1983, 1985, and 2000; Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act, 2000, Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations, 2001; Electoral Administration Act, 2006; the Parliamentary Constituencies (England) Order, 2007; Political Parties and Elections Act, 2009; Electoral Registration and Administration Act, 2013), available at: <>. Comparable information is available for France at the website of the Ministry for the Interior <>, last consulted 10 March 2016. See also Section 2 of Chapter 6 of the Electoral Code, Articles R40 and R71, concerning voting procedures,
  • [68]
    Daniel Katz, Elihu Dayan, Media Events. Live Broadcasting of History (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1994); Nick Couldry, Media Rituals (London: Routledge, 2003); M. W. Brewin, Celebrating Democracy.
  • [69]
    The television cameras even film the vote-counting from a distance in the United Kingdom.
  • [70]
    In France these programmes provide a debate platform for party spokespeople and elected representatives, and tend towards verbal jousting. In Great Britain, the parties avoid these head-on conflicts and the televised electoral coverage tends to be a succession of commentators, reactions, and speeches without debate.
  • [71]
    The candidates each receive a number and their publicity appears in the same order on the public notice boards throughout the constituency where they are standing (P. Tanchoux, Les procédures électorales…, 471).
  • [72]
    The High Council for Audio Visual Material controls the diversity of information during electoral campaigns, in application of Article 16 of the law of 30 September 1986, applying the principles of fair and equitable access to airtime. See, < > (last accessed 10 March 2016).
  • [73]
    In the first years of the Third Republic, debates on the liberalisation of political meetings were linked to the desire to encourage the emergence of a voter inspired by contact with candidates and contradictory deliberations, rather than by a house-to-house personal contact approach. Paula Cossart, Le meeting politique. De la délibération à la manifestation, 1838-1939 (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2010), 116.
  • [74]
    Studies on the effects of campaign techniques have shown the efficiency of personal communication, which had been neglected in part due to the arrival of mass propaganda methods. See the detailed analysis of campaign fieldwork in the United States: Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Ground Wars. Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012). In France, researchers trained in the United States created start-ups dedicated to selling communication and campaign services (see <>): see Guillaume Liégey, Arthur Muller, Vincent Pons, Porte-à-porte. Reconquérir la démocratie sur le terrain (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 2013).
  • [75]
    Several procedures were adopted at the end of the nineteenth century to prevent voters being accompanied to the ballot box.
  • [76]
    In France, pre-electoral polls cannot be published during the last week of the campaign – a restriction that struggles in the age of the internet.
  • [77]
    The day of the vote is important because it has an impact on the participation rate. European countries that organise elections on a work day have higher abstention rates. In France, the choice of a non-working day dates back to 1875 (see Y. Déloye and O. Ihl, L’acte de vote, 63).
  • [78]
    Yves Déloye, “Se présenter pour représenter: enquête sur les professions de foi électorales de 1848”, in Michel Offerlé (ed.), La profession politique, 19-20e siècles (Paris: Belin, 1999), 231-54; Marion Paoletti, “Domestiquer la représentation politique: les professions de foi pour les élections législatives de 2002”, Mots. Les langages du politique, 77, 2002, 29-39.
  • [79]
    The sequence of actions is relatively flexible in practice, as Yves Déloye shows in his ethnography of votes in a village context, “L’élection au village…”.
  • [80]
    The transparent ballot box was introduced in France in 1986, having been rejected in 1914, in spite of the existence of similar models that were solid, unbreakable, and established practice in Italy (P. Tanchoux, Les procédures électorales …, 528; Y. Déloye, O. Ihl, L’acte de vote, 47).
  • [81]
    The use of “voting machines” was tested early in France, but the rhetoric of modernising the operations did not lead to them being widely adopted. Resistance was due not only to their cost, but also to a reflection on the individualisation of the vote and the reading of results by actors who feared they would lose control of a process that they mastered. Nathalie Dompnier, “Les machines à voter à l’essai: notes sur le mythe de la ‘modernisation démocratique’”, Genèses, 49(4), 2002, 69-88. See also Gilles J. Guglielmi, Olivier Ihl, (eds) Le vote électronique (Paris: LGDJ-Lextenso Editions, 2015).
  • [82]
    John R. Searle, The Construction of Social Reality (New York: The Free Press, 1995), 116 and 54-5.
  • [83]
    In certain countries where the vote is counted by the electors, counters are randomly selected and receive an official summons requesting their presence and participation.
  • [84]
    The counting operations introduced under the July Monarchy were systematised with the introduction of mass suffrage in 1848. From 1876, these operations immediately followed the closure of the voting station to encourage total transparency in the procedure (P. Tanchoux, Les procédures électorales, 529).
  • [85]
    Signing the registers has been practised systematically in France since 1830, gradually became routine, and was finally regulated to guarantee the integrity of the count in the constituency, as per the texts of 1848 and 1913 (P. Tanchoux, Les procédures électorales, 482ff). The involvement of citizens and the standardisation of these voting procedures in France were the result of the need in 1848 to organise elections rapidly based on universal male suffrage. See the fascinating study of electoral engineering in Y. Déloye, O. Ihl, L’acte de vote, 75-97.
  • [86]
    This is an observation the authors made in several large towns.
  • [87]
    The immediate and exhaustive presentation of local results was decided in 1848 and contributes to affirming popular sovereignty, but it is ultimately the media that plays the role of national diffusion of results (P. Tanchoux, Les procedures électorales, 496).
  • [88]
    There is no official distribution of campaign material as is the case in France
  • [89]
    Telephone or electronic canvassing are now very common. Several studies show however that personal contact remains crucial for mobilising voters. See, for example, Justin Fisher et al. “You get what you (don’t) pay for: the impact of volunteer labour and candidate spending at the 2010 British General Election”, Parliamentary Affairs, 67(4), 2014, 804-24.
  • [90]
    “Treating” is strictly controlled, to the point where a candidate cannot offer tea, coffee or biscuits to voters who have come to a public or a private meeting without committing an infraction. Offences are punishable with imprisonment for the electoral officer of the candidate found guilty.
  • [91]
    This constraint weighs heavily on the budgets of small parties such as the Greens or the Communists, but does not prevent the Monster Raving Loony Party or Natural Law Party from presenting candidates.
  • [92]
    Campaign spending reached a maximum of 41 million pounds in 2005 according to the Electoral Commission (< >, last accessed 11 March 2016).
  • [93]
    Thursday was chosen because it was the day least likely to interfere with the obligations of different recognised religions. The hours were extended from 7am to 10pm in order to be compatible with a working day.
  • [94]
    The increase in fraud has nevertheless led to the possibility of requiring proof of identity, for example, a driving licence or passport (there are no identity cards in the United Kingdom). See The Sunday Times, 5 January 2014. Historically associated with the status of landowner and with taxes, voting rights have sometimes been linked to residency, which was an efficient way of preventing them being extended to members of the working class, who were often highly mobile in the nineteenth century, in both countries.
  • [95]
    British ballot papers can be “interpreted” according to the supposed intention of the voter, whose hand might have slipped if the cross is not perfectly legible. In France any voting slip with any kind of marking is automatically invalid.
  • [96]
    During the European elections of 2004, a postal vote was tested in four of the twelve regional constituencies. Participation in these regions was five points higher than in the other regions: see Adam Mellows-Facer, Richard Cracknell, Jessica Yonwin, European Elections 2004, Research paper (London: House of Commons Library, 2004). However, the experiment was judged unsatisfactory overall, particularly because of the increased number of allegations of fraud and the complexity of operations: Lewis Baston et al. “Turning out or turning off? An analysis of political disengagement and what can be done about it”, Electoral Reform Society, 20, 2004 <>.
  • [97]
    S. Coleman, How Voters Feel, 119-21.
  • [98]
    Charles Pattie et al. “Measuring local campaign effects: Labour Party constituency campaigning at the 1987 General Election”, Political Studies, 42(3), 1994, 469-79.
  • [99]
    In the wake of the First World War, the Treasury took responsibility for the financial cost of organising elections. The principle of universal male suffrage, with a condition of six months residency, was also adopted.
  • [100]
    Once they have been counted, the ballots are kept under seal by the administration. Electoral legislation forbids the government, or any other person or entity, from consulting these archives, but the government alone is able to respect or break this law: see Robert Blackburn, The Electoral System in Britain (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1995), 88. Trust in institutions and in fellow citizens is one of the fundamental values that characterises British civic culture according to the classic study by Sidney Verba and Gabriel A. Almond, Civic Culture, Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963).
  • [101]
    This is a striking contrast with France where the results are known by polling station, thus enabling a close analysis of neighbourhoods by political parties and academics. In Great Britain, electoral canvassing allows parties to follow the evolution of the electorate house by house.
  • [102]
    In 1997, the Liberal Democrat candidate in the seat of Winchester was elected by two votes. This was one of the closest results ever recorded.
  • [103]
    The teams of the different counting centres compete to be the first to announce the results in front of the cameras, but this rarely happens before midnight.
  • [104]
    “Telling” outside the polls, as well as their representatives’ observations of the counted piles, nevertheless give parties an idea of the direction of the electoral decision.
  • [105]
    The musician David Sutch, better known under the name Screaming Lord Sutch, created the Monster Raving Loony Party in 1983 to mock the domination of the electoral process by the major parties. It had local success (with the election of R. U. Seerius to a county council in Derbyshire in 2005) and surprising longevity given their voluntarily ridiculous campaign platform. The candidates, who have often (officially) changed their names to something absurd, generally wear bright coloured costumes and extravagant hats. This tradition has been carried on after the death of the party’s founder in 1999.
  • [106]
    Y. Déloye, O.Ihl, L’acte de vote, 41; A. Garrigou, Le vote et la vertu…; Marc Sadoun (ed.) La démocratie française, vol. 1, Idéologie (Paris: Gallimard, 2000).
  • [107]
    J. M. Barbalet, Emotion, Social Theory; Y. Déloye, O. Ihl, L’acte de vote, 55; P. Cossart, Le meeting politique, 302.
  • [108]
    Norbert Elias, La civilisation des mœurs (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1973 [1st edn 1939]).
  • [109]
    S. Coleman, How voters feel.
  • [110]
    Christian Le Bart, L’Individualisation (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2008), 88.
  • [111]
    J. M. Barbalet, Emotion, Social Theory, 138.
  • [112]
    V. Turner, Forest of Symbols, 36.
  • [113]
    By touching the ballot the presiding official in France could attempt to guess the vote by feeling its thickness. The fight against fraud takes place through the enrolment on the electoral register, the transparent ballot boxes, communications between electoral services in the town councils, and the checking of identity documents – which does not prevent fraud, in instances where voters are deceased or have moved houses for example.
  • [114]
    This opposition was the object of a thematic section at the 2015 Congress of the French Association of Political Science (AFSP) in Aix-en-Provence, “Politique des temps ordinaires et politique des temps électoraux”.
  • [115]
    Many studies on the direction of the vote have considered – too hastily – that individual identities are relatively fixed (S. Coleman, How Voters Feel, 155-7).
  • [116]
    Ironically, the tellers of the different candidates share the numbers they have collected with one other.
  • [117]
    Y. Déloye, O. Ihl, L’acte de vote, 55.
  • [118]
    C. Le Bart, L’individualisation, 89.
  • [119]
    Historically, electoral meetings have been assimilated to assemblies of the sovereign people, the incarnation of republican democracy: they therefore had to be held in solemnity, allow the exercise of reason and deliberation, and lead to the expression of the general interest (P. Cossart, Le meeting politique…, 115-58).
  • [120]
    Y. Déloye, O. Ihl, L’acte de vote, 63.
  • [121]
    The French tradition in fact sees parties as a potential threat to the unity of the nation: see Raymond Huard, La naissance du parti politique en France (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 1996); Jean-Marie Donegani, Marc Sadoun, La démocratie imparfaite (Paris: Gallimard, 1994).
  • [122]
    Y. Déloye, O. Ihl, L’acte de vote, 64. During debates on the secret ballot, the opponents of the reform argued, with John Stuart Mill, that the public vote provided a guarantee that the common good inspired the citizens’ choices (quoted in R. Blackburn, The Electoral System in Britain, 108.)
  • [123]
    S. Coleman, How Voters Feel, 160.
  • [124]
    In order to do this, candidate spending is limited whilst the sources of their resources are not so tightly controlled. The privatisation of the vote played a key role in this process. See J. M. Barbalet, “Secret voting…”.
  • [125]
    Alan Macfarlane, Origins of English Individualism, Family Property and Social Transition (Oxford: Blackwell 1978); C. B. Macpherson, Frank Cunningham, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, Hobbes to Locke (Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2011). In this respect, see the analysis by Le Bart, citing these two authors (C. Le Bart, L’individualisation, 74-8).
  • [126]
    This traceability is unthinkable in the French context, seen as a sign of ambivalence towards the authority of the state and elected representatives.
  • [127]
    A. B. Seligman et al., Ritual and its Consequences, 15.
  • [128]
    A. B. Seligman et al., Ritual and its Consequences, 24.
  • [129]
    Rodney Barker, Legitimating Identities. The Self-Presentation of Rulers and Subjects (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 115.
  • [130]
    The number of blank votes is not included in the calculation of total votes cast, and therefore is not included in the calculation of the thresholds necessary to be elected.
  • [131]
    In the United States, votes are held in all manner of public and private spaces, including in businesses, which paradoxically contributes to limiting the use of strong symbols in a country which otherwise has managed to develop a cult of the flag and presidential symbolism. Elections are always held on the first Tuesday of November.
  • [132]
    In Europe they are used only in Switzerland, Estonia and Norway: Chantal Enguehard, “Transparence, élections et vote électronique”, in Elsa Forey, Christophe Geslot (eds), Machines à voter et démocratie (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2011) (Questions contemporaines), 89-106; John H. Pammett, Nicole Goodman, “Pratiques de consultation et d’évaluation dans la mise en œuvre du vote par Internet au Canada et en Europe”, Elections Canada, 2013, 19-26.
  • [133]
    Adam J. Berinsky, “The perverse consequences of electoral reform in the United States”, American Politics Research, 33(4), July 2005, 471-91; Adam J. Berinsky, Nancy Burns, Michael W. Traugott, “Who votes by mail? A dynamic model of the individual-level consequences of voting-by-mail systems”, Public Opinion Quarterly, 65(2), June, 2001, 178-97.
  • [134]
    Meredith Rolfe, Voter Turnout, A Social Theory of Political Participation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 3-4.
  • [135]
    R. Hirschbein, Voting Rites…, 3
  • [136]
    In 1951, the Labour Party won more votes than the Conservatives but lost the elections.
  • [137]
    Bernard Manin, Principes du gouvernement représentatif (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1995).
  • [138]
    We would like to thank the colleagues who were willing to discuss previous versions of this project, particularly during the European Sociology Association congress in Milan, at the International Sociology Association in Yokohama, and at the Australian National University in Sydney. We would particularly like to thank Yves Déloye, Vincent Tiberj, and Tommaso Vitale for their close reading and very valuable comments on this text. Thanks also to the anonymous reviewers of the Revue française de science politique.

Voting is a symbolic practice. Yet political scientists tend to focus either on the outcomes of elections or on citizens’ motivations for voting in the first place – typically by building models of the former on the basis of assumptions made about the latter. By doing so, they forget the symbolic significance of the practice itself and the meaning it has for the participants. In this article, we seek to restore a focus on this symbolic dimension through an analysis of voting rituals in France and Britain. We explore what citizens do when they vote. In particular we pay attention to how the voter’s choice is constructed as either something that can be performed and hence displayed publicly, or as irredeemably secret and private. We consider how such typically taken-for-granted practices help us understand the extent to which these actions reflect divergent assumptions about the boundaries of the public and the private, and contribute to the construction of particular visions of the polity and the place of citizens in the democratic process.

Florence Faucher
Professor of political science at the Centre d’études européennes de Sciences Po, Florence Faucher is the author of: Les habits verts de la politique (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 1999); Changing Parties. A Political Anthropology of British Party Conferences (London: Palgrave, 2005); (with Patrick Le Galès), L’expérience New Labour (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2010/Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 2010/ Milan: Franco Angeli, 2014). Her most recent publications include, “New forms of political participation: changing demands or changing opportunities to participate in political parties”, Comparative European Politics, 2014 (online), and “Leadership elections: what is at stake for parties? A comparison of the British Labour Party and the Parti socialiste”, Parliamentary Affairs, 2014 (online). Her research focuses on political parties, changing forms of political activism, anthropology, and political cultures (CEE, Sciences Po Paris, 28 rue des Saints-Pères, 75007).
Colin Hay
Colin Hay has been a professor in political science at the Centre d’études européennes de Sciences Po since 2013. He has written numerous books, the most recent of which include: (with Anthony Payne) Civic Capitalism (Cambridge: Polity, 2015); (with Stephan Farrall) The Legacy of Thatcherism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014); The Failure of Anglo-Liberal Capitalism (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013); (with Daniel Wincott) The Political Economy of European Welfare Capitalism (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). He chairs the editorial committees of New Political Economy, Comparative European Politics, and British Politics, and was the president of the panel on political science and international relations in the British Research Excellence Framework of 2014 (CEE, Sciences Po Paris, 28 rue des Saints-Pères, 75007).
Translated from French by
Katharine Throssell
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