Voting for expat MPs

Yesterday (in America) and today (elsewhere outside of metropolitan France), French citizens registered before 31 December 2011 with their consulate were able to vote for a member of parliament. For the first time, the French living abroad will have dedicated representatives in the lower house (we could previously vote in France through awkward arrangements).

I live in the 11th district of the French-abroad, covering Russia, much of Asia, and Australia. 20 candidates were competing: 8 from established parties (no common candidates were fielded here, either by the parliamentary right nor by the “presidential majority” leftist parties, which is quite common inside France), and 12 others (a very high number, but not uncommon abroad).

While some of my friends voted online (also a first, fraught with technical issues and the worrying requirement to downgrade your Java virtual machine), I know of a couple who did not vote, while they had in the presidential election a couple of weeks ago.

An interesting issue was the emails sent by the candidates to the voters, as authorized by the French state who supplied the data on CDs (first and last name, date of birth, email address, home address).

Obviously, email is cheaper and more effective than paper propaganda (I didn’t receive the official campaign material on time for the presidential election, for example). Outsourcing the sending to the candidates is not a bad idea either (they have to print their own campaign material, although the state mails it to the voters, in one bundle).

But email marketing has rules — some of which have been translated into law, but many of which are simply understood by people, especially in Europe — such as the need for prior approval before “spamming” your recipients.

And this campaign has broken the rule: it wasn’t really possible to opt out of the emails. Some candidates did supply the option, but it was up to them to honor it, and there was no easy way to opt out of the whole election communication.

This is a beautiful real-life example of the pitfalls of old lists and gathering mailing authorizations offline: even if, technically, the candidates had voters’ approval, many experienced the mails as unsolicited and unwelcome.

Politics sometimes takes a page from commercial digital marketing in a very interesting way (the Obama campaign of ’08 and perhaps to a lesser but nonetheless worthy degree, the work done around Hollande this year). However, heavy-handed or tone-deaf tactics can backfire in a way that affects democratic processes. The participation rate in an election isn’t just another conversion goal.

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