Voting, Venetian style

Lately there is a lot of talk about elections. In Canada, word on the street is that Justin Trudeau will call an election late summer or early fall. (I still don’t fully understand the parliamentary system.) In the US, there is the usual partisan wrangling over voting rights – who gets to vote, where, when, and how. As a dual citizen, I have marveled over the differences between the countries in how votes are physically cast.

I have only ever voted once in person in the USA, when I lived in Boston, Massachusetts and cast my ballot in the historic 2000 presidential election of Bush versus Gore. It started with me going to the local library, entering a gargantuan machine with a curtain, and pressing various levers. In the middle was me stating I was going to sleep before the election results came in and leaving my husband on the couch to watch. It ended with me waking up the next morning to find my husband still on the couch, still watching, riveted by a heated discussion about the hanging chads of West Palm Beach, Florida.

When I first voted in a Canadian election, I was amazed at how simple it was. I walked to the polling station, was given a paper ballot and a pencil, stood behind a cardboard screen, and ticked off my candidate. The results were finalized well before midnight with nary a mishap.

The Election of a Doge - J. Costello
Costello, J.; The Election of a Doge, Venice; Shipley Art Gallery

Renaissance Venice was no true democracy, but they did have quite a democratic – although byzantine – way of voting for doge. In an attempt to minimize cheating and ensure the system wasn’t rigged, here’s how it worked:

“Whenever the time came to elect a new doge of Venice, an official went to pray in St. Mark’s Basilica, grabbed the first boy he could find in the piazza, and took him back to the ducal palace. The boy’s job was to draw lots to choose an electoral college from the members of Venice’s grand families, which was the first step in a performance that has been called tortuous, ridiculous, and profound. Here is how it went, more or less unchanged, for five hundred years, from 1268 until the end of the Venetian Republic.

Thirty electors were chosen by lot, and then a second lottery reduced them to nine, who nominated forty candidates in all, each of whom had to be approved by at least seven electors in order to pass to the next stage. The forty were pruned by lot to twelve, who nominated a total of twenty-five, who needed at least nine nominations each. The twenty-five were culled to nine, who picked an electoral college of forty-five, each with at least seven nominations. The forty-five became eleven, who chose a final college of forty-one. Each member proposed one candidate, all of whom were discussed and, if necessary, examined in person, whereupon each elector cast a vote for every candidate of whom he approved. The candidate with the most approvals was the winner, provided he had been endorsed by at least twenty-five of the forty-one.”

— Anthony Gottlieb, “Win or Lose,” The New Yorker.

Wooden Voting Urn, 15th or 16th century, Correr Museum – thanks to Save Venice for bringing it to my attention

Contrast this with the cardinals voting for the next pope, as I chronicled with my coauthor when Francis become pontiff in 2013.

I’m not sure who I’ll vote for in the upcoming Canadian election, but even though I’ll be grateful for the simplicity of paper and pencil, I sure wish I could stuff my ballot in a voting urn similar to above. It’s rather anti-climatic to have to stick it into a plain cardboard box, with no puffs of white smoke to announce the final outcome.

Perhaps if our elections held a little more pomp and circumstance, we could increase voter turnout.

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