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AP news states flatly that:

Mail-in voting isn’t allowed in France.

What's the usual reason invoked by French politicians in making this prohibition?

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    Note that the French voting system has many detailed rules to make it especially transparent to all voters: (literally) transparent ballot box, ballots are counted on the spot (never leaving the room and the sight of everybody who cares to be there), several people are involved in every operation, the tally for a given polling place is posted on the door and/or on the door of the town hall and can be found in the local newspaper (or, now, online) the next day, etc. – Relaxed Sep 14 at 17:54
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France allowed mail-in voting from 1958 to 1975. It was replaced by proxy voting by law 75-1239 in December 1975. The reasons given at the time to get rid of mail-in voting are the same reasons not to reintroduce it today, namely, that it can and did permit significant fraud.

Electoral fraud is difficult to quantify, mostly because all that can be reliably quantified is detected fraud. The political discourse on electoral fraud is often motivated by direct interest more than demonstrated observation. (Nathalie Dompnier. La mesure des fraudes électorales : difficultés méthodologiques et enjeux politiques. In Histoire & Mesure, XXII – 1 | 2007, p. 123–144.) (Not that this is surprising when it comes to politics.) So it is difficult to evaluate the precise impact of fraud. However its possibility and its existence are well-established.

Mail-in voting offers opportunities for fraud

A major difficulty in organizing political voting is that no single person or organization is trusted to tally and report votes sincerely. A trustworthy voting process must make any attempt at tampering evident. This is very difficult with mail-in voting because the chain of custody is long.

The voting process in France ensures that every point of the chain of custody of votes and vote tallies is verified by multiple people, and any voter is authorized to observe it. Voting is done with paper ballots which the voter places in a transparent ballot box, which never leaves the polling station. Any voter who is registered in the same municipality can observe both the voting (which takes place over a single day) and the tallying at the polling station. Fraud at this stage requires controlling or intimidating all would-be observers, which is a high threshold. The threshold for polling-station fraud over mail-in votes is a lot lower. It is impractical to verify that the mail received over the course of days or even weeks was kept securely, that none of it was thrown away and that extra votes are not added.

It is also more difficult to prevent impersonation with mailed-in votes. At best, casting a mail-in vote on behalf of someone else requires the knowledge of some secret code that was mailed to the voter, and of the voter's signature. Both of these are very easy to do for the entity that organizes the vote. Other would-be fraudsters need to intercept mail, which is a higher threshold, but less high than impersonating someone who is supposed to be physically present.

Another difficulty with mail-in voting is that it makes coercion and vote selling easy. Even if it was possible to validate the chain of custody of the ballot after it was filled by the voter, remote voting makes it impossible to verify that the voter could cast their vote confidentially.

The reason that usually comes up in political discussions and in the press is fraud through an opaque of chain of custody.

Opposition to mail-in voting in France before its suppression in 1975

The newspaper of record Le Monde announced the 1975 bill in an article titled “To reduce electoral fraud, mail-in voting is abandoned”. (Links to Le Monde may be subscribers-only.)

The government shall propose a bill amending the electoral code and the legal code of municipal government. It augments the measures against electoral fraud that are already law with a three series of measures regarding the revision of electoral rolls, voting procedures, and the powers of administrative courts over electoral disputes. (…) The bill removes the possibility of mail-in voting. It is replaced by a proxy vote for people who cannot participate in the vote due to a compelling professional reason or a physical inability.

(Proxy voting has since been generalized to simply require a self-sworn statement that you will not be able to vote in person.)

The subsequent article announcing that the Senate had adopted the law again stated an emphasis on combatting electoral fraud.

Even before 1975, there had been concerns about mail-in voting leading to stricter legislation. Citing an article titled “The fight against electoral fraud” in Le Monde dated 1968-04-04:

The process of mail-in voting is maintained, but it is improved with extra guarantees. Introduced by the express wish of General de Gaulle before the 1958 referendum [context], mail-in voting has been widely used for fraud. Nevertheless the government estimates that it is a method that is well suited to the conditions of modern life where holidays and travel are increasingly common. Therefore it will be maintained.

(The 1968 law added minor extra oversight.)

A 2020 article on France TV Infos cites a few examples that were highly publicized in 1975, such as:

200 mail-in votes were fraudulent: 35 of them were permitted by a medical certificate established by a doctor from [a distant town] who had died in 1971… two years earlier. Many other certificates were crudely forged, written by the same hand, and supposedly written by practitioners who had no knowledge of them. (Le Monde, 1973-03-13)

(You could only mail in your vote if you were unable to attend the polls in person, which required a written justification such as a medical certificate.)

And from a November 1975 article, a statement by a prominent Corsican politician after the announcement of the 1975 bill suppressing mail-in voting:

Mail-in voting, which could be excellent in principle, was absolutely detestable in the way it was applied. The government preferred a radical suppression to a modification of mail-in voting. It will replace it by proxy voting, which is not completely safe. We must carefully observe how the law is applied if we wish to sanitize the electoral climate.

For context, electoral fraud was and is more prevalent in Corsica than in the rest of the country. The article goes on to mention that in Ajaccio (the largest city in Corsica), one list had obtained 33.5% of the physical votes but 90% of the mail-in votes in the first round, and similar figures in the second round.

Official rationale for the 1975 bill

Here are some excerpts from the rationale for the bill given by Jacques Limouzy, the member of parliament who was the advocate for the bill. (Débats parlementaires : Assemblée nationale, compte-rendu intégral des scéances, 1975–1976, n°116, p. 9366–9368)

There are (…) within the electoral process certain preferential areas where fraud is more prevalent because the offered facility creates an easy temptation, an extra propensity, sometimes an almost indecent provocation.

Such, ladies and gentlemen, is mail-in voting.

(Snipped: remarks about fraud being more common certain regions.)

Here also — observers generally agree on this point — mail-in voting is one of the preferred methods for fraud. The idea of removing mail-in voting and replacing it by proxy voting has therefore been generally admitted in the [parliamentary] legal commission.

Limouzy then argues to restrict the scope of proxy voting, which would be the next easiest fraud target when it replaces mail-in voting. He also discusses the modalities, insisting on making it accessible (you register for proxy voting at the local police station).

The interior minister Michel Poniatowski gave similar arguments (id., p. 9368–9370).

Among the 147 countries of the world, less than 25 are democratic, that is to say, they are countries where the people rules the nation directly or through its elected representatives. (…)

There is no democracy when a party maintains a monopoly on candidacy.

Neither is there democracy when the voting is not secret.

Nor is there true democracy when some people use liberal dispositions of the electoral code in order to taint it through fraud. (…)

Since the instauration of [democracy] in France, our electoral legislation has evolved along two axes, which we are today starting to realize do not necessarily coincide.

The first axis is the concern to make suffrage ever more open and easier. (…)

The second axis (…) has been the quest for an ever more sincere vote. (…)

The existence or the possibility of certain abuses drives the Government to propose that you modify the electoral legislation so that instances of fraud, which reflect a shameful degradation of political mores in democracies, shall cease as far as possible.

Fraudsters exhibit extreme ingenuity and fertile imagination, and their processes are often hard to prove. I shall therefore not have the pretense to state that the present bill will eliminate all possibility for fraud. It has at least the effect of reducing its main three sources: the manipulation of registration on electoral rolls, mail-in voting, and the perpetuation of elected representatives through fraud.

(Snipped: discussion of improvements to the accuracy of electoral rolls.)

This bill also carries a remedy to the abuse that is caused by remote voting through mail.

The fraud that this votation mode permits are well known. They have scarcely any technical difficulty. (…)

Thus the mayor, who has a monopoly on mobilizing voters by mail [I think this means the mayor oversees the sending of absentee ballots], has at his disposal a group of voters whose votes he can use to his own interest.

In the last days of the campaign, these “stand-in voters” supposedly request a mail-in ballot at the city hall, under the pretense of sickness.

The necessary instruments for a mail-in vote are mailed at the last minute to the purported address of the “stand-in voter”. It (sic.) is intercepted, or it is returned to the sender with the mention “unknown recipient at the stated address”: the mayor can then destroy it since he knows that the vote has already been posted. This type of fraud is unfortunately common. (…)

At the same time, the mayor can neutralize mailed-in ballots cast by voters whom he suspects of being hostile to him or to the candidate that he favors.

All he has to do is to send the instruments too late, or to cause the enveloppes that he has received to disappear, or to declare that they were empty.

Such abuse is not limited to this or that district. A mere local consensus is enough for it to happen.

But one often forgets that it also has a partisan basis. I am especially thinking of certain districts where the elected representatives serve parties that are strongly centralized, structured and organized. The terrain is then highly favorable to fraud.

(As far as I know, he's referring to the communist party.)

However, I would like to state that such fraud is not limited to certain regions or certain political formations.

I will give you a few examples, taken over the past two and a half years. They fill seven pages! I will not name the locations or parties involved: they are honestly spread over the whole horizon.

(…)

I gave these examples to give you an idea of the extent of this fraud. But one should not exaggerate: the vast majority of mayors are of perfect correction and probity, and I would say that 96 or 97% of our 38,000 mayors would never lend themselves to such operations. Unfortunately, 3 to 4 per cent do. We must therefore eliminate everything that could allow them to lend themselves to such shenanigans.

Here are some statistics. For the March 1971 municipal elections, the number of complaints to the State Council [the electoral commission] was 463. The State Council cancelled 32 of those elections in full and 216 in part. (…)

For the 1973 district elections, 29 affairs have been judged leading to 9 cancellations.

But many cases to not result in a complaint to the State Council.

These examples and figures show that one must not neglect this fraud situation or believe that it is specific to this or that district. The lists that I have here with me concern municipalities in 60 different districts [out of 99].

The Assembly must therefore grant a great deal of attention to the bill that is submitted to it, especially since fraud through mail-in voting and registration on electoral rolls has been seen to increase rapidly over the last ten years.

In these conditions, the Government has no choice, given the abuse that mail-in voting leads to, but to propose its complete suppression.

I wish to state that in our democracy, mail-in voting is a subsidiary voting method, initially created to avoid requiring electors to attend polling in person if they were unable to do so, and that it exists in almost no other democracy.

It is not logical to link mail-in voting with democracy when the abuse of this voting method casts a discredit on democracy, on voters and on those who are elected.

On the other hand, mail-in voting will be replaced by proxy voting, which carries more guarantees, since it requires the voter to appear before a legal authority, and the proxy to vote in person.

(Snipped: how proxy voting is organized to reduce the opportunities for fraud.)

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    @Fizz In comparisons with the US, note that we have much higher standards in France. Our baseline is no unattended ballots, no voting machines (although they're allowed and used in a few locales, with considerable opposition), no way to prove how you voted, mandatory id when voting, highly structured campaign finance laws, and redoing the election if we aren't sure that the process went well. “There would probably not be much fraud” is not good enough, and “at least it would be better than the current massive disenfranchisement” doesn't apply (or at least didn't outside Covid). – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Sep 14 at 7:23
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    @mjt: There are many polling stations. The smallest village will have a polling station. And yes it will be manned all days by multiple persons. The process calls for at least 1 person checking identity, 1 monitoring that a single ballot is cast (unless a voting machine is used), and 1 monitoring that the voter signs that they have voted. Which is why we vote on Sundays, and even then many monitors are 50+ (no small children to keep them busy). – Matthieu M. Sep 14 at 9:29
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    @mjt The minimum attendance is one municipal employee and two representatives of different candidates. At least two of those 3+ must be present in the room at any time. Every candidate is entitled to one representative. The votes are tallied in the same room where they are cast. – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Sep 14 at 10:29
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    @mjt There is at least one polling station per municipality, which in rural areas tends to mean every place that had a church in the 18th century, so within walking distance for most people. In urban areas the maximum number of voters per station is ~1500, which sometimes leads to spills-onto-the-street queues because people tend to go at the same time, but in practice leaves enough quiet times for people who have time constraints. Polling takes place on Sunday so most people don't have strong time constraints. – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Sep 14 at 10:32
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    This answer represents France's history with mail-in voting as a factual failed experiment, but the texts quoted lack political context so that non-French readers are left guessing whether the outcome was due to a general political consensus, or perhaps was a mere political victory by tenacious partisans. – agc Sep 14 at 13:11
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From a somewhat more detailed article on France 24:

Postal voting [...] has been abolished in France since 1975 "because it lent itself to manipulation", said [Interior Minister Christophe] Castaner. However, it also remains an option for French citizens abroad during legislative elections.

So "manipulation" seems to be the reason invoked nowadays. Frankly even this is a bit terse of an explanation, so if someone knows more details about this "manipulation" that French politicians invoke, that would be a better answer.

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  • I think France 24 is being imprecise with its terminology. AFAIK, it hasn't “remained” an option for French citizen abroad during legislative elections since 1975. This was only introduced recently (as were the MP representing French citizens abroad). – Relaxed Sep 14 at 17:49

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