Voting, here & there
Elections and voting in Norway and the United States
Emily C. Skaftun
The Norwegian American
While in Norway this August, I had the pleasure of accompanying my friend Chloe to the voting shack. It was three weeks before the official election date, and Chloe’s flatmate Erland was haranguing her about not doing her civic duty yet. So of course, we all got to chatting about the differences in voting systems.
Living in Washington state, I’ve been enjoying voting by mail for a long time. In fact, I’ve only voted in person once in my life, in the 2004 presidential election, while living in New Mexico.
“But how do you know they’ve counted your vote?” Erland asked, shocked.
It’s a fair question, one many of us are asking as even in-person voting in many U.S. states goes electronic, leaving no tangible trace. Although Washington’s Secretary of State allows voters to track their ballots on its website, we still have to trust that the information provided is accurate.
I have no reason to think it isn’t. In fact, my husband’s late mailing of his ballot for a local primary election this summer gave me reason to believe our votes normally are counted—because he received a letter informing him that this time his vote hadn’t counted.
So how do Norwegians know their votes are being counted? I watched Chloe put her paper ballot into a locked box that was watched by a monitor. So each voter at least knows that their ballot has gone into the locked box. A chain of custody on those boxes makes fraud unlikely.
Instead of mail-in voting, what Norway has is a long early voting period and a lot of flexibility in polling locations. The system for local elections, as Erland tried to explain it to me (any errors here certainly stem from my misunderstanding), is that every Norwegian voter can vote in any polling place in the country. If they go to the one for their kommune, they can make “extra” votes for individuals standing for local office, but at any location they can submit the simpler vote for which party they prefer for the kommune and fylke level*.
Chloe and I walked past several polling places in Oslo. These are temporary structures set up in open spaces. One could be on their way to the grocery store, see a voting booth, and just decide to take care of it. Contrasting that to my one in-person voting experience, when I stood in a line that wrapped around the block (in November!), Norway’s system seemed to work like a dream.
Even contrasting it to Washington’s mail-in system, it seemed more streamlined. As my husband demonstrated this summer, even just dropping your ballot in a mailbox by a certain date can be a challenge for wwould-be voters. Happening past a location, one that sticks out by virtue of being temporary, means you almost have to go out of your way not to vote. Having a ballot arrive in the mail is a pretty good reminder, but if it’s not due until after the gas bill, that ballot can drift to the bottom of the to-do pile, never to be seen again.
One of the things I like about having ballots mailed to me rather than going to vote in person is that it gives me time to research candidates and ballot measures in my own home, voting as I go. Erland looked at me funny when I said that, and it dawned on me that American ballots are much more complicated than Norwegian ones. Maybe I’m wrong, but it doesn’t seem like ballot measures are a thing in Norway, or school board elections, or electing a Port Commissioner, or any of a dozen other things that clutter up my ballots.
Ultimately, comparisons of systems always seem to come down to a judgment of which is better. I couldn’t begin to say, as I see plusses and minuses to both systems. But it is always fascinating to look at other ways of doing things, and I’m grateful for the glimpse I had of Norway’s “valg.”
*Have I misunderstood about voting in Norway? We welcome corrections from Norwegian voters. Email email@example.com.
Emily C. Skaftun took over the reigns of The Norwegian American in Jan. 2014 and has done her best to keep it afloat ever since. With that adventure over, she hopes to spend more time playing roller derby and writing science fiction and fantasy. You can find links to a number of her published stories at www.ecskaftun.com.
This article originally appeared in the September 20, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.