With a mouse click, an expat casts his French vote, from Beijing

France is only the second country in the world to allow Internet voting in a national election, allowing citizens like the Monitor's Peter Ford to exercise their democratic right in the heart of Beijing.

By , Staff writer

Living as a foreigner in China, where none of my local friends has ever had a chance to cast a free vote, I make a special point of always voting when I get the opportunity in my own elections.

Yesterday, France (of which I am a citoyen) made it a whole lot easier for me to do so. I cast my ballot online in parliamentary elections – the first time this has been allowed.

In fact, France is only the second country in the world to allow Internet voting in a national election, (Estonia has been doing it since 2007), offering an online ballot to citizens living abroad. Not only that, we were voting for one of 11 seats in parliament specifically reserved (for the first time) for deputies representing expatriates.

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I say the system made it “a whole lot easier.”

But, not exactly. In fact, all in all, it probably took me longer than it would have done to nip over to the French embassy to vote in person at the polling station there next Sunday. But that was because of security concerns, and it took a phone call to a helpline agent in France to sort out various problems with Java script before I could cast my virtual vote.

Security concerns, of course, are what stop Americans from being able to vote online. The Pentagon tried a system in 2000 for its personnel deployed overseas, but decided it was too vulnerable to hackers and abandoned it.

The French are pretty cautious too. Only people registered at a French consulate could vote online, and each voter needed a 10 character personal code sent (once only) by SMS to a mobile phone and another 10 character password sent to a verified e-mail address.

I am no computer geek, but if complexity is any indication of security I am comfortable with the procedures in place. After I had voted I was sent a “control code” that I can use to ensure that my vote is counted: that code comprised 337 digits, symbols, and letters in upper and lower case, more than four lines.

If my math is right, that means there are 65 to the power of 337 possible combinations of the components of my code. Pretty personalized.

In fact the technical aspects of voting were only the half of it. The real challenge was political: My constituency covers 41 countries, from Vanuatu to Ukraine, and I had to choose among 21 candidates, only one of whom I had heard of before the elections.

He was a minister in recently-defeated President Nicolas Sarkozy’s last government and is the only candidate presenting himself in my constituency who has never lived abroad. As far as I’m concerned, that rules him out from the start.

So I read a whole lot of online manifestos, and made my choice, and moved my cursor to the appropriate button and clicked my left mouse-key.

Democracy in action, in the heart of Beijing. A shame you have to be a citoyen francais to enjoy it...

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