Greece is a world-beater in one industry: running elections

Greece is a world-beater in one industry: running elections

Say what you will about the Greeks and their country’s reputation for inefficiency, but they know how to run an election.

As voters head to the polls this weekend for the sixth time since 2009, the well-rehearsed process of combining low-tech paper ballots with modern mobile technology will probably run like clockwork yet again. The July referendum on austerity measures, for example, was organized in about two weeks and came off without a hitch.

The task is a joint endeavor of the national government and a private Greek company, SingularLogic. Controlled by Marfin Investment Group, a holding company founded by Greek entrepreneur Andreas Vgenopoulos, the information-technology services firm has been in charge of electoral data collection, processing and distribution since 1981.

"It’s not that we’re using some trick nobody else has. It’s that practice makes perfect," said Alexis Drimiotis, who leads SingularLogic’s election efforts. The company is exploring ways to make tabulation even faster, he says, and if past experience is any guide it will have plenty of chances to test new methods.

Thanks to a series of unstable coalition governments, Greeks voted in 2009, twice in 2012, and after Sunday will have held two national elections this year — in addition to the austerity plebiscite. Voting is officially compulsory.

No hanging chads here

Compared to U.S. elections, plagued in recent years by inconsistent and confusing ballot designs, frequent allegations of fraud, and long lines at polling stations to use antiquated voting devices, Greek votes operate with an efficiency more often associated with the country’s largest creditor, Germany. Fraud accusations are almost unheard of, as are reports of voting difficulties of any significance — let alone "hanging chads."

Vote tallies from more than 200 inhabited islands, some only reachable by 10-hour ferry rides, are compiled within a couple of hours at most. Polling stations are administered by local lawyers or notary publics who apply to be election monitors and receive net pay of 443 euros ($503) for the day’s work.

Ballots are simple paper affairs, with one printed for each of the country’s more than 12 political parties. Each voter selects the ballot they want, drops it in the ballot box, and discards the rest. Ballots are generally counted on site, not at central locations as in some U.S. states. This saves on travel time.

SingularLogic’s most distinctive role comes in the vote tallying. Administrators in a representative sample of polling stations are given a secure cell phone just before the vote.

Preliminary results

Once each polling place has completed its count, preliminary results are sent by text message to the company, which compiles them and issues a national result projection. Typically that’s also available within a couple of hours of polls closing, even in extremely tight elections. Hard copies of ballots are then dropped off at local courthouses for an official count that can take days, and to be preserved in case of disputes.

Nonetheless, Drimiotis says, "the differences between the official and preliminary results are so minute they have almost never been of significance."

To be sure, not all Greek votes run entirely smoothly. International Monetary Fund documents that formed part of the package on which the country was asked to vote in July were garbled in a translation from English to Greek, an error that was never rectified.

That hasn’t stopped some Greeks from taking pride in their country’s unusual talent for the most basic practice of democracy — a concept the country claims to have invented, after all.

As Kostas Leoutsakos, a 49-year-old taxi driver in Athens, put it on Thursday: "We just hold elections; it’s about the only thing we’re good at."


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