How the voter could get stuck in the mountains and valleys of the ballot paper

How the voter could get stuck in the mountains and valleys of the ballot paper

Just as Buster Keaton struggled with a newspaper in 1921 that turned out to be bigger than he had imagined, many Dutch voters struggled with their ballot paper on November 22. Especially if they had set their sights on a less common party, the entire tablecloth had to be unfolded. But even if you had only worked on the top left corner of the form, you could easily get stuck folding it back. You didn’t really feel how the folds were intended and you ended up pushing the whole thing à l’improviste through the ballot box slot.

“The ballot paper was one meter wide and approximately 70 centimeters high,” the Ministry of the Interior (and Kingdom Relations) reported when asked. This did not suddenly make it the Netherlands’ largest ballot paper, because the one from March 2021 was the same size. Even then, there were almost fifty political parties and 70 gram paper was used, paper that was 70 grams per m2.2 weighs.

There was precious little time to produce the approximately 13 million ballots, the ministry continued. “This is because the final list of candidates is only known a maximum of 14 days after the day of nomination. Then there are about four weeks for printing and folding.” This is outsourced to four companies who in turn often outsource it further because there are not many machines in the Netherlands that can handle the large sheets. Folding in particular is an ugly bottleneck.

Testing for ease of use

The ministry, which did not avoid any detail, added that the folding schedule is always chosen in consultation between companies and municipalities and that in the present case the accordion fold had come true. And, no, there had been no opportunity in that short time to test the chosen folding scheme for its ease of use.

That about the harmonica is not true, no harmonica fold was used. Everyone knows the harmonica fold, perhaps not directly from the ‘leporello’, but certainly from the road map because that is what it is ideally used for. The 1:200,000 maps on 65 gram paper that were released by Michelin between 1950 and 2000 always had an accordion fold, or ‘zigzag fold’. Or Z-fold. Accordion-folded road maps are available in two versions. Some, like Michelin, first fold the mapped landscape in half before zigzagging it. Others do it the other way around. That matters. In narrow spaces and windy environments, the Michelin maps were superior.

For the ballot paper, the concertina fold would have been ideal. The folding scheme is so simple – up, down, up, down – that no one can really make a mistake and the zigzagged paper has an excellent memory: thanks to the resilience of the folds, it almost automatically springs back into its old shape. With road maps, this quality is eventually lost because the folds wear out and because the traveler, in his haste and laziness, easily makes false folds.

The emotion of the moment

But no accordion fold was used. It turns out that the memory did not properly capture the emotion of the moment, but it turned out to be possible with a little effort. The Internet has stored a surprising amount of photos of ballots, especially since the size has been so complained about. Not all photos are usable, some are from older elections and there are also so-called ‘postal ballots’ that could be sent by post, but there are enough of the ballots that were handed out in March 2021 and November 2023.

They show similarities and differences. What they have in common is that eight vertical strips are formed by means of seven folds, but the folds that achieve this differ in their alternation. It is illuminating to distinguish them into mountain and valley folds, as is common in origami. If you give the mountain fold the letter B and the valley a D, you could represent the zigzag fold by BDBDBDB. Or DBDBDBD, of course. But see for yourself: it doesn’t happen.

The schemes that were used are DDBDDBB and DBBDDDB (and their inverses) with the double folding that we know from the road maps. It is quite a job to check in which order the folding machine applied them. Early creases are usually sharper than creases made in paper that has already been folded.

Folded A4 sheets according to different schedules.
Photo Karel Knip

The reconstruction is easiest if you transfer the observed folds (mountain and valley) to an A4 sheet of printing paper. This has the same proportions as the ballot paper (1:0.7) but is slightly heavier (80 grams, the multifunctional HEMA paper is 75 grams). If you fold them carefully, with each type of fold in the right place, the original shape will appear quite easily on the printing paper. There appears to be a very simple system of double-clapping behind it.

The deficit of the last ballots, but it can be an idea fixe, seems that they did not bounce back enough to the old form. That there is too little shape memory used to be. There has also been some communication with the ministry about this. Could this memory perhaps be improved by switching the longitudinal and transverse directions of the type of paper used? It is known that paper has different properties in one direction than the other due to the orientation of the wood fibers during the production process. The ‘anisotropy’ influences strength and stiffness.

Is there any profit to be made here? “The printers know the phenomenon all too well,” says the ministry, “but it does not work that way in light 70-gram paper. And the enormous size of the notes does not actually allow for any optimization.” We understand: it remains improvisation.