A few years ago, the late Senator Ted Kennedy called my voice mail. He wanted to remind me to vote that week for him and for other politicians that he had endorsed. This call (a recorded message) was not just made to me, but to all Democrats in the state of Massachusetts. During election season, you can expect to see hundreds of television commercials for political candidates and to get many phone calls weeks before the election. It is not unusual to see political ads during every commercial break of a tv show. And then there are the fliers you get in the mail, some of them big and glossy, some are just simple post cards, but they end up filling your recycling bin. Politics in America is big business and it is all about getting the word out, in any way you can. I remember the relief I felt the day of an election, just knowing that I would not have to see, hear or read another ad.

What I have just described to you does not happen in the Netherlands. There are no TV ads like in the USA. Each political party can make a commercial that will air at a specific time and a block of ads from all the parties will be shown at one time. The money for these ads comes from the government, and only a small amount comes from the private sector. Some candidates will purchase extra air time for more ads to run during regular programing. But  the ads are not a big part of the campaign. There are no phone calls. No bright and cheerful fliers in the mail. Instead, big wooden signs are put on street corners, and there the candidates or parties put their poster on the board. Eventually the board is filled with a variety of posters, that are not that big. When you are driving by in your dinkie car or on your bicycle, you cannot read these posters unless you actually stop and look up. It makes me think that is this the way they must have done the political season years ago, before the mass media took over. A man rides his horse drawn wagon past a wooden billboard with hand written signs nailed to it. He says “whoa” and sets about reading about the candidates. Life has not changed too much here.

Televised debates are very popular here and many voters make their decision based on these. The debates are only for those that are head of the larger parties. The one thing that really stands out here compared to America, is the absence of negative campaigning. You are not allowed to attack candidates, personally or professionally. It is expected that everyone will be civil to each other and quite frankly, I have never seen anything like it.

I am not going to even try to explain the Dutch government. You will have to google this subject as it is too complex and ultimately, frustrating to write about. But I will tell you how people vote here, it is slightly a little different from America…and yet, some things will sound familiar.

The Dutch have a multi-party system and there are 20 parties on the ballot. That means that several parties must form a coalition government. On the ballot there are 837 names and you can vote for only ONE person. ONE.

You must be 18 years old to vote. Non Dutch people can vote in municipal elections, as long as they are legal residents. Everyone living in The Netherlands should be a registered resident and therefore, do not have to register to vote. Residents get a card in the mail and that is what you bring to the voting station. 13 million people received their “voting pass” in the mail within the last few weeks.

There are multiple voting stations…at churches, schools, libraries, and even railway stations. But the wonderful thing is that you do not have to vote at a specific location, you can vote at any station in your municipality. Living in the Utrecht area means that you can choose from 140 voting stations.

For a short time, the elections used computers, but they were not well received. They went back to paper and a red pencil. Results are usually known soon after the stations are closed at 21:00 (10pm).

One of the most interesting things about the multi-party system are the types of parties. Some examples:  Green Party, Animal Party, Proud of the Netherlands, 50PLUS (for those over 50 years of age) and my absolute favorite:  the Pirate Party. This is a party dedicated to repealing Dutch copyright law. I laughed so hard when I first heard the name, as I imagined men with eye patches and wooden legs asking for your vote…”argh!”  I was kind of disappointed to find out that there were no ships, rum or Johnny Depp involved.

The election is Wednesday, September 12. If the pirates prevail, I will let you know.

Here are photos of the wooden sign and of the ballot that was mailed to voters. It gives you a sense of how big the paper is and how much information is on it.

For your viewing pleasure: ELECTION starring Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon.

Dutch Elections 12 September 2012.

List of parties and candidates to choose from.

Names and addresses of voting locations in the municipality of Utrecht.

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  • Marty Flint  On September 8, 2012 at 7:04 pm

    That is so interesting about the voting system of the Netherlands. Ours does seem a bit gauche and ineffective for all the tons of money that is spent on it. It offends me in that sense. Wish we could trade places for a few elections so we could all try the other style.

  • Niki  On September 9, 2012 at 12:36 am

    Thank you for the informative post. I enjoyed reading it. 🙂

  • Jean Langley  On September 11, 2012 at 2:08 am

    I can’t fathom how you would choose who to vote for. I’m embarrassed to say that in many local elections I’ve never heard of some of the minor candidates and leave the box blank. But it would be great to have so much less blather!
    I don’t know what our media would do with all those parties.
    P.S. I loved that movie.

  • Aledys Ver  On September 12, 2012 at 2:37 pm

    The Dutch system fascinates me as well, not just during the campaign but also during the government formation phase – in Argentina it’d be unthinkable to have a government headed by a leader but in which the ministers come from different parties – nothing would ever get done over there it we had the same system! (well, never ever gets done, except to cause damage, but that’s a different story)
    The Pirate Party cracks me up – I wonder how many votes they’ll get?
    Have you seen the debate in the “Jeugdjournaal”, the news programme for the kids? Isn’t it wonderful that politicians actually take the time to answer the kids’ questions?

  • Frits  On September 14, 2012 at 7:13 pm

    Marty I’m not too sure about us trading systems with the US… You can try ours of course, but I don’t really fancy the two party system over here lol…
    Our system is interesting, it has plenty of flaws (like any democratic system really) but all in all it does work. It’s a representative democracy system which means that the amount of seats a party gets in parliament is directly linked to how many votes a party gets (no winner takes all). Like I said it is far from perfect though. In the last 14 years the political landscape over here has fragmented which means that there are more parties in parliament it is a lot more difficult to get a stable coalition that lasts the 4 years it is elected for. on a side note yes there were 21 parties on the ballot but only about 10 got enough votes to get seats in parliament.

    The Pirate Party is actually not a dutch thing. The first pirate party started in Sweden (I think the name was an allusion to piratebay) the idea spread to other euriopean countries including the netherlands. They are all about new media and internet and radically changing (a lot of people wouyld say abolishing) Copyright laws, and defending freedom and privacy on the internet. Oh and they did not manage to get a seat in parliament in this election.

  • Leslie Sullivan  On September 16, 2012 at 12:27 pm

    It would be nice to have a balance. The candidates here are spending Soooo much money on campaign messages–it is mind boggling–I guess in some ways it is helping the economy–the public relations, advertising and media companies must be raking it in. Unfortunately many of the ads and speeches produce lukewarm lies which the “journalists” hardly every question. I rub my forehead daily over the latest untruth pouring out of some polititicn’s mouth–it’s awful.

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