It's election time in Italy.

Years ago, when he was a poor student, Yours Truly added his name to the list of Available Ballot Counters of his voting district hoping to earn some money (Counters are paid rather well, by a student's standards).

Now that I'm a qualified engineer, I've been picked up to do my (now compulsory) civic duty.

I'm actually losing money today, but I have the great privilege to describe the inner workings of a voting precinct to e2verybody. Where to start?

Blank ballots are bundled in groups of fifty, and the bundles can be somewhat slippery. They have a mind of their own and can be quite malicious. If you do not treat the bundle with due respect, it will explode in your face and the shrapnel will form the dreaded Ballot Pudding on the floor. Dirty ballots must be set aside with unbearable amounts of paperwork.

Each ballot must be stamped and signed by a Counter; four of us are assigned to do this highly rewarding work. The prize for completing a bundle is that you get fifty more ballots to sign.

I really pity the poor bastard named Pierfrancesco Di Mastrogiacomo, even if after a thousand signatures we are all named Aloulua Ouid.

Let me give you an example of the bureaucracy we have to endure: we use a single official stamp to mark documents, ballots and so on. Since it's such an important object, at the end of the day it must be put away in a special envelope. The label on the envelope instructs us to close the flap and stamp it. I wonder where they get those nifty Klein envelopes.

By law, the ballots must be marked using a particular kind of pencil whose lead contains, well, lead. Another law forbids the manufacture of those pencils due to toxicity concerns. I am not making this up.

By the way, if you think that your solid-gold fountain pen is posh, think again. A ballot pencil is worth 309 euro! This is the fine you have to pay if you forget to hand the pencil back after you have voted. (If a voter walks away with a pencil, what actually happens is, the Head Counter snaps one of the remaining pencils in two and sharpens the stubs.)

Ballots are color-coded on the outside, while the symbols of the parties are printed in full color. Since the approval of a law designed to streamline the party system, the number of parties has ballooned. Our ballots hold 22 different symbols (among them: a shield, a seagull, two monuments, a belltower, every kind of flower barring orchids, a multi-colored flame, an oak, an olive branch, a couple of flags, and a sail).

One of the parties belongs to Benito Mussolini's niece. I cannot make jokes about her symbol or Baffo will hit me with a stick.

Some of the ballots are bedsheet-sized with up to eight crease lines.

All the symbols must be clearly distinguishable by law, but some of the smaller parties use dirty tricks. A symbol that appears to be unique can be easily mistaken for one of the larger parties if you are color blind. Another symbol bears a small black "X" on it, presumably to save the voter some effort and to exploit the tiredness of the Counters (your eyes start to water after 2 AM, when the counting session is only half completed).

Several voters can cast their ballots at the same time (in different voting stalls, of course). The general procedure is as follows:

for (i=0;i<700;i++) // where 700 is the average number of voters in a given precinct
greet the voter, take the ID and the voting certificate, verify that the voting precinct is correct, write down the ID card number and the certificate number, give him/her the ballots and a pencil, point to an empty voting stall, wait, (optional step if the voter is a registered hot babe: check her ID card to see if she lives near you), put the ballots in the boxes, take the pencil back, say in a loud, clear voice "MR./MRS. SO-AND-SO HAS VOTED", stamp the certificate, put a signature next to the ID number in the registry, give back the card and the certificate, say goodbye.

During peak hours these operations start overlapping, and several things can go horribly wrong. It helps to keep in mind some simple rules.

  • Rule number one: Voters are color blind. Left to their own devices, they will put the green ballot in the red box, and vice-versa.

  • Rule number two: Voters are origami masters. The neatly folded ballot that you gave them will be returned shaped like a chicken that makes amusing pecking motions when you pull the tail.

  • Rule number three: Voters can't recognize their own name, or the photo on their ID card. They will gladly snatch the nearest ID, run to the airport, and begin a 15-days trek in Mongolia with somebody else's card. We have to catch them before they leave the country.

  • Rule number four: Voters never make large marks on their chosen symbol, out of respect. They are also afraid that the ballot might fight back if they press the pencil too much. A Counter must have 20/20 vision and an unnatural love for details.

The aftermath.

It's over. For a couple of days I'll talk in a clear, loud voice, and I'll make hand gestures to indicate objects that are only half a metre away ("let's go to the COFFEE MACHINE over there"). I won't sign anything for a week.

I'll get paid next Friday; a single specimen of my signature will be worth about 10 euro cents. According to the current autographs market, I'm worth 21,2 milliKevinCostners (a KC is the standard measuring unit of autographs value).

Every single party has released a statement saying that they've gained votes since the last election.

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