The Proposition: Compiling and negotiating democracy in a Danish municipality

Anne Kathrine Vadgaard

Democratic politics typically relies on elections for the appointment of political representatives, which involves the highly visible work of political campaigning and mobilisation of voters. But elections are also dependent on the largely invisible work of bureaucrats and temporary staff, who organise the electoral process and record and count the votes. On election day, citizens are transformed into voters, and ballots into political authority. This is only possible when polling stations are accessible, political candidates are registered and ballots are counted. All these nitty-gritty bureaucratic practices make democratic elections possible. At the same time, a particular kind of democracy appears from this invisible, taken-for-granted ‘electoral infrastructure’, which needs to be assembled and maintained in practice (Bowker and Star 2000).

The purpose of this chapter is to explore the kind of democracy that is situated in the electoral infrastructure of municipal elections. While the work of electoral bureaucrats can seem mundane and reproductive, it can also be responsible for re-assembling or transforming this infrastructure. Following such work with ethnographic methods allows for a productive unsettling of the distinction between bureaucracy and politics, as it becomes apparent that the dividing line between the bureaucratic and the political is both a political and a technical question.

Helen, a Danish bureaucrat, and my main informant during my 2013 fieldwork at a Copenhagen municipal election office, made this reflection on her work with organising polling stations:

We could decide not to send the proposition to reduce the number of polling stations to the local City Council for further investigation. This would make it an administrative decision. But we chose to pursue a political assessment. After all, it is the politicians who govern.

Here, Helen offers a glimpse into a performance of democracy where the divide between political and administrative responsibilities is perceived as given, but where the status of a problem as political or administrative is at the same time left to the discretion of the bureaucrats. In what follows, I explore the work surrounding a written proposition to reduce the number of polling stations in Copenhagen Municipality. I dwell on the socio-material practices through which municipal democracy appears, is negotiated, and becomes entangled with idea(l)s about bureaucratic work. In doing so, I approach representative democracy as a practical achievement by the public administration. More specifically, my focus is on the bureaucrats’ attempts to produce a proposition that is politically viable. This emphasis on the mixing of bureaucracy and politics is a way of recognising and appreciating democracy as ‘technodemocracy’ – with inspiration from Latour’s foregrounding of the social and material realities of science in action that led him to approach science as ‘technoscience’ (Latour 1987).

My approach builds on two claims about democracy. The first is that there is no decontextualised or pure form of democracy. This is not to say that there are no situated democratic ideals. In the case of Denmark, the ideal of a deliberative and representative democracy can be traced back to debates between theologian Hal Koch and solicitor Alf Ross in the years following the Second World War (Ross 1946; Koch 1991[1945]; Togeby et al. 2003). However, this chapter focuses on how democratic ideals and principles are intertwined with practices, concepts and procedures in public administration. The focus on electoral practices allows me to avoid treating democracy as a set of ideals separate from lived reality. According to this approach, ideals are not pure democratic principles that ‘get dirtied in the harsh and messy social world when they are “applied” in practice’ (Mol and Berg 1994: 248). Rather, ideals emerge entangled with local practices. In my case, they appear as the work on the proposition progresses. Throughout this chapter, I follow how the issue of the accessibility and cost of polling stations is negotiated and rearranged as part of the work on the proposition. In the words of Asdal and Hobæk (2020: 255), I seek to highlight how election office work includes ‘not only knowing the issue but also the ability to work on and modify issues’. Democratic politics happens partly through bureaucracy, and democratic ideals are situated in these practices.

My second claim about democracy is that constructions of democracy are ‘as social – and material – as anything else’ (Mol and Berg 1994: 248). Following a long tradition of ethnographies of bureaucracies and documents (see Hull 2012; Frohmann 2008; Harper 1998; Riles 2006; Strathern 2006), I explore the rearrangement of political, organisational and legal concerns through the writings of the proposition. Through techniques and technologies, documenting practices and archival work, a democratic order emerges which is detached from the political document that is produced. Although the work of the political administration tends to be hidden and is usually considered apolitical and mundane, these technologies and practices are by no means neutral (Barry 2001). On the contrary, they are generative of modern forms of knowledge, expertise and governance (Riles 2006).

In what follows, I will first briefly explain the background of the proposition up until the point when I started my fieldwork. I will then tell the story of the election office bureaucrats Ida and Helen, with an emphasis on how their efforts to ensure the political viability of the proposition also complicated it.

Compiling and complicating

The proposition is a three-page document. The document lists six arguments for reducing the number of polling stations in the municipality. This is the result of a long process. Since early 2012, drafts of the proposition have been circulating between meeting rooms and offices, employees and committees in the municipality. It all started when the politicians in the Election Committee asked the election office to investigate the possibility of reducing the number of polling stations in order to cut down on the costs of the election. Two months later, at the next meeting of the Election Committee, the election office presented a proposition to reduce the number of polling stations from 54 to 38. The election team presented a rough draft as they wanted to know whether to continue in this direction before they put more effort into it. While the politicians were happy with the work, several members emphasised that it was important not to remove polling stations from districts with low voter turnout. The election team was requested to revise the proposition with this in mind. The Election Committee also emphasised the importance of broad political agreement on this matter. So, in November 2012, the local group leaders of the political parties represented in the City Council were involved in the process. At this point, the reduction of polling places in the proposition had been revised to 40 following the suggestions made at the initial meeting with the Election Committee. The majority of party leaders, however, did not support a reduction of polling stations based on the prospect of financial savings. The politicians argued that democracy is expensive by nature and that it would be important that any reduction in polling stations would not affect voter participation. It was decided only to look into mergers of polling stations that would improve accessibility.

The work on the third version of the proposition started at the time I began my fieldwork in the election office. For six months, I followed the ‘immense labor and negotiating skill that lies behind the formulation of every sentence’ (Strathern 2006: 196) of the final proposition.

Learning bureaucratic argumentation

How do you write a municipal proposition? This was the question Ida, a recently hired municipal employee, faced one cold January morning in the election office. As a recent university graduate, she had little experience of municipal bureaucratic work, and she had never written a proposition before. She turned to Helen, sitting next to her, for help. Helen had worked in the municipality for many years and had also written the previous two versions of the proposition. First, Ida found the latest version of the proposition in the municipal case and document management system, along with the document template. With these key elements in view on the screen, Helen taught her some basic formats for a proposition. Ideally, a proposition should be no longer than three pages and contain only four to five arguments. This concise format was a result of the politicians’ tight calendars, Helen explained, which only left them an hour for committee meetings and even less time to prepare. If documents were imprecise or too lengthy, the politicians would be unable to make informed decisions. Helen used the term ‘strategic argument’ to explain what should make up a significant part of a proposition. A strategic argument would align with the objections made earlier by the Election Committee and the City Council. Yet Helen also expressed an aversion against being too ‘strategic’, as she did not like the connotation of technocratic coercion. The goal of the proposition is not to coerce the politicians, she argued, but to provide the foundation for them to make an informed decision.

The previous version of the proposition, which Ida now opened, proposed splitting one polling station into two in an area with a growing population and new housing projects. This version pointed out that despite the growth of the area, the polling station was still located in the same old building, and the polling station had problems with long queues on election day. it was therefore proposed to add a second polling station. For strategic reasons, Ida underlined that setting up a polling station in a centrally located and entirely new public building would future-proof the polling station with regards to location and increased capacity, as well as offer easier access for voters. Furthermore, it would ‘contribute to solidarity and local identity in the new neighbourhood’, Ida wrote. Strategically reframing the argument of the proposition to meet concerns about accessibility and long queues was an important way in which the election office sought to make the proposition politically viable and thus reorganise the electoral reality.

Working with these arguments, Ida learnt to navigate between administrative reasons for fewer polling stations and political objections to these plans. She learned to use politically ‘safe’ expressions such as accessibility, instead of problematic notions such as financial cost. In doing so, she aligned with the Election Committee’s concern with the democratic ideal of accessibility.

Complicating the proposition

One afternoon, about one week into the revision process, I found Ida glancing at a large map of Copenhagen that hung in the middle of the office. The floor-to-ceiling map showed nine different voting districts and 54 different polling station areas in the municipality, each outlined with coloured lines. Small dots showed the 54 current polling stations, and small arrow stickers highlighted the polling stations under consideration for change. Ida needed an overview, as she was in the process of adjusting the arguments so the reduction would only be from 54 to 50 stations instead of the 38 or 40 stations that the first two versions of the proposition had suggested.

As it turned out, cost and accessibility were no longer the only concerns in play. The election team had discovered several irregularities in the current setup. The election law states that each of the 54 areas must be associated with a polling station. Although it is not specified, Ida and Helen took it that polling stations must be located within the area they are associated with. This did not apply to three stations, so these irregularities had to be dealt with first. Ida therefore visited potential sites for new polling stations around the city to get a sense of their accessibility, and she discussed the matter with employees in the department that governs the portfolio of municipal buildings. Back in the office, she stared at the map to try to unite all the different requirements and mumbled: ‘By now, the arguments have almost got me blocked. They have been in the making for so long’.

She put her finger on the polling station in district 1, and I asked her about the arguments for removing it. First, Ida stated, the polling station is not even located in district 1, but in district 3. Secondly, the school that hosts the current polling station is not particularly accessible. It is undergoing reconstruction, and as a result the entrance is not at the level of the surroundings, making it difficult to access for the walking impaired. She had not been able to find any alternative locations in the area. Instead, she explained, the polling place should be merged with another that was both accessible and more centrally located. This is what Ida eventually suggested in the proposition, along with the removal of four other polling stations by merging them with already existing polling stations: two of them due to similar district irregularities and one because it was located at a school that was closing and thus unavailable for the next election. The last polling station was deemed to have very low accessibility, and as it was situated very close to two other polling stations, the election team proposed to merge all three. In the end, despite the fact that legal concerns were clearly the main reason for taking a closer look at these polling stations, the proposition highlighted the accessibility of the merged polling stations rather than issues of legality.

In short, while strategic arguments about accessibility were important, the writing of the proposition was not simply a matter of aligning with the interests of the political committee. The election team followed up on a multitude of concerns, discovered new site-specific problems and opportunities, and discussed many different scenarios. In the process of working on the proposition what was initially raised as a financial question was complicated to include concerns regarding accessibility, waiting time, legal regulations and hopes for urban development.

Circulating the proposition

One afternoon in late February 2013, Ida stated, ‘it doesn’t get any better now’ and sent the proposition to Marie, the head of the election office, for review. Ida had finished constructing her six arguments: five arguments for merging the five polling stations and one argument for setting up a polling station at a new location in a new neighbourhood. The proposition was now ready to be circulated through multiple political and bureaucratic units for approval, before getting the final verdict in the City Council. Two days later it was on the Election Committee’s agenda, and during this meeting, the Lord Mayor and chairman of the committee again focused on the issue of voter accessibility. Marie and Ida from the election team, who were present at the meeting, clarified that some of the changes were due to legal regulations. The election team eventually agreed to go over the suggested changes to clarify how they affected accessibility. With that settled, the Election Committee unanimously approved the proposition.

The next stop after the Election Committee’s approval would be another municipal committee, the Finance Committee. The road to the Finance Committee, however, was bumpy. High-ranking employees in the Finance Administration now needed to look at the document. For each step up the political ladder that the proposition travelled, a parallel step was needed in the administration. This approval process was slow, and the proposition got stuck on the Financial Director’s table.

While awaiting his approval, the previously discarded concern about costs re-emerged. Part of the reason was that the Department of Citizen Services, including the election team, had recently been moved to the Finance Administration. This move effected an increased focus on finances and costs, which in turn affected the approval process for the proposition. So, while the proposition remained stuck on the Financial Director’s table, several employees closer to the director in the organisational hierarchy emphasised a concern with costs, which had been the original driver behind the proposition to reduce the number of polling stations. To accommodate this concern, Ida added a rough estimate of potential savings to the proposition. In 2013, the savings were projected to balance out with the added cost of an information campaign. Potential savings for 2014 were more difficult to estimate. The overall budget for the elections to come in 2014 was not available this early, and Ida struggled to calculate the numbers. At this moment, the election team was trying to figure out how to reincorporate the previously discarded concern with costs without compromising the Election Committee’s dismissal of financial arguments. The uncertainties of the election budget came to the foreground when the Finance Administration questioned the election team’s method of calculation. Ida had calculated the costs based on the expenses of establishing a polling station, whereas the Finance Administration suggested that the calculations should be based on the yearly costs of running a polling station. Ida revised the proposition accordingly and added a new section named ‘Economy’.

This new version of the proposition with the section about costs won approval from the Finance Administration. The proposition was, however, still not ready for the Finance Committee’s agenda. After reviewing the document, the secretary had requested that the proposition be sent to the political group leaders of each party in the City Council for further discussion. The opening quote of this chapter relates directly to this suggestion. Helen and Marie discussed who should handle this request: ‘We could decide not to send the proposition to reduce the number of polling stations to the local City Council for further investigation. This would make it an administrative decision’, Helen said. In her opinion, sending the proposition to the political group leaders was yet another time-consuming detour. But instead of going with an ‘administrative decision’, they decided to go for a ‘political assessment’, which implied asking the politicians in the Election Committee. ‘After all, it is the politicians, who govern’, as Helen had explained.

Fortunately for the election team, the Election Committee decided not to redirect the proposition to the political group leaders. After three months of circulating between different political and bureaucratic units in the municipality, the three-page proposition was finally ready to be discussed at the meeting of the Finance Committee in May 2013. Here, it was recommended by 11 out of 12 members of the committee and on 4 June the proposition was on the agenda at the City Council meeting, awaiting final approval.

Disengaged responsibility

When the proposition finally reached the City Council, all the revision work and the time-consuming circulation up and down the organisational hierarchy was erased. Only the final document made it to the politicians. In contrast to the election team, which had been reconfiguring polling stations for more than twelve months, these politicians had never seen the proposition before. They encountered the polling stations through the short and highly selective way in which the administration had chosen to present the new electoral infrastructure on three pages of paper.

In scientific practices of fact-production, the world is also packed into words, but in ways that differ from the political decision-making procedures described here. Latour’s (1999) work on ‘circulating reference’ shows the processes through which information from the Brazilian Amazonas is translated into a scientific paper. Following his presentation of botanists’ and soil scientists’ investigations into whether the savanna is encroaching upon the forest or vice versa, he explores how scientists collect samples and transport and transform these from objects into words. For instance, small samples of branches brought back from the forest, neatly stored and rearranged in a cabinet in Manaus, are slowly transformed into notes and botanic categories in the hands of the botanist, as she looks for emerging patterns in the leaves. But even within this botanist’s collection, where the forest is reduced to its simplest expression, the reverse process is never far away; the simple expressions can ‘quickly become as thick as the tangle of branches from which we started’ (Latour 1999: 39). Thus, while some original context may be lost in the transformation and simplification, the reference back to the forest remains intact, and the chain of reference between the forest and the scientific paper is always reversible (Latour 1999).

References do not circulate with the same kind of reversibility in the municipal decision-making process. While the politicians are provided with an appendix of maps of the polling stations, which allows them to track some of the arguments in the proposition back to specific areas in Copenhagen, these short referential chains are rarely explored further, nor are they supposed to be. The politicians keep themselves within what is narrowly defined as ‘the issues in the file’. The task of the municipal employee collecting the file is therefore not to create the kind of two-way path seen in scientific research practices. Rather, the task at hand is to provide the politicians with a number of unquestionable and thoroughly investigated arguments. Ida’s assignment in the election office was to create ‘strategic’ arguments from which a decision could easily be reached. This was not done by accumulating more and more data, as would be the approach of the scientific researchers Latour describes. Instead, Ida produced a narrow, coherent document by linking and unlinking the issues of cost and accessibility in different ways (Latour 2010).

An instrumental part of this mode of referring to the electoral reality is the election team’s ability to rearrange arguments in the face of conflicting and changing concerns. When performing this task of (un)linking and rearranging the issue, Ida could not afford to be married to any of the arguments. She needed to move into a disengaged position from which she could recognise a plurality of concerns, complicate matters if necessary, and rearrange the issue according to new and shifting conditions. While Ida was passionate about her work, her focus was on the bureaucratic craftsmanship of constructing arguments that would make the proposition ‘go all the way’, rather than on any particular aspect of the proposition.

The bureaucratic detachment from the political decision-making process was intact when the proposition was approved on 4 June 2013. The election team had been working on the proposition since May 2012, so when Ida told me about the final approval, I thought about congratulating her on the success. But with my observation of detachment in mind, I just replied: ‘That’s good’? Ida must have been able to read the implicit question mark after my hesitant remark as she merely responded, ‘it is certainly new’.

Later, however, when I talked to Ida about the entire process, she did mention that by the time the Election Committee requested and decided to move on with the proposition to reduce the number of polling places, it had become a criterion of success for the election office that the proposition would be approved. But a successful outcome would require, Ida stressed, that everybody involved in the process be heard. Long and time-consuming procedures were not a sign of failure, she pointed out, but a prerequisite of approval. It follows that the indifference I noted towards the outcome does not reveal a lack of care for the document. It is about not being attached to any particular arguments so that their smooth unlinking, rearranging and reformulation is possible. The disinterest can thus be seen as a necessary lack of concern with political arguments, decisions, ideals, political schemes or hopes for the city and its citizens. These are rather the concern of politicians, whereas the bureaucrats simply carry out the tasks imposed on them, whether relating to accessibility or reducing costs. By continuously performing the relationship between the election team as responsible for the basis of the decision, and the politicians as responsible for the decision itself, the election team creates a small, disengaged space for manoeuvre in which multiple, diverse and shifting political concerns can be taken into account.

The politics of the proposition

As should be clear by now, the process of compiling, negotiating and making the proposition ‘go all the way’ involved time-consuming work. At the same time, in the circulation of the document, a boundary was drawn between political decision-making and bureaucratic casework. This was explicated several times during my conversations with the election team, as exemplified by the opening quote. Here, Helen emphasises that it is the politicians who govern and make assessments, in contrast to the work of the bureaucracy.

Following Matei Candea’s analysis of the non-politics of language activists in Corsica, the election team can be perceived as creating a non-political space through which they can attend to the proposition in a disengaged manner (Candea 2011). They collect and test arguments that form the basis on which the politicians make decisions. Through this work, Ida and the team enact the administrative and the political worlds as distinct from one another. In other situations, however, such as the discussion over who should decide on the circulation of the proposition to the group leaders, the borders between the political and the non-political are less clear-cut and are, indeed, frequently renegotiated. The political and the non-political emerge as opposed performative projects, rather than figure and ground (Candea 2011: 321).

I would suggest, however, that accepting a fluctuating yet rather straightforward opposition between the political and the non-political risks missing some of the complexity of the situation. When the election team makes sense of its work as non-political and as opposed to the politics of the City Council, this is done in terms that resembles a fixed idea of political power based on a four-year policy cycle, where citizens, by means of elections, delegate authority to politicians who then govern and make decisions. This understanding of politics follows democratic principles of representative democracy and is in its ideal form independent of (administrative) practices.

In other instances, however, the dichotomy between the political work of the City Council and the non-political work of the bureaucratic offices appears ambiguous. Ida had to weigh and balance conflicting bureaucratic and political concerns. The financial administration emphasised costs, but the politicians were more concerned with accessibility. According to the politicians, costs were to be explicitly disregarded as an argument for changing the structure of the polling stations. The first version of the proposition was rejected by the City Council because it argued for reducing the number of polling stations based on the prospect of financial savings. In my reading of the situation, the administrative crafting of the proposition does not precede political concerns or decision-making in a linear fashion. Throughout the process of revising the proposition, Ida paid attention to the political concern with maintaining voter participation regardless of costs. Yet she eventually included a small paragraph on the expected savings of reducing the number of polling stations. A political move, one might say, to appease the finance administration and get the proposition accepted. Through the process of building the proposition, administrative and political concerns were mutually brought into being and adjusted. They sometimes collided when arguments regarding costs encountered arguments of accessibility, with accessibility trumping costs as a political concern. At other times, and in the final version of the proposition, they were combined (Law 2004). In this situation, the domain of politics was both emergent and given, site-specific and not-yet-located, both worked on and perceived as something independent of the administration, but still dictating and framing the work performed there.

Compiling and negotiating democratic ‘goods’

Instead of settling on one definition of the political, which may or may not include an idea of the non-political, I suggest we keep all the different meanings and notions of ‘the political’ alive as markers of democracy in situated practice. The continuous negotiations and circulations of the proposition presented in this chapter suggest that ontologically different political and non-political realities and ‘goods’ may co-exist (Law and Mol 2002; Mol 1999). The proposition’s concerns with accessibility and costs could be seen as universal democratic goods. But this would miss how several goods were at stake in the situation. The compilation of the proposition illustrates how different political and bureaucratic concerns were constantly brought into play in unforeseen ways. They clashed and competed when the proposition was sent from the Election Committee to the Finance Administration and back. They overlapped when closing old polling stations would reduce costs and improve accessibility. They were both disrupted by legal concerns about polling station regulations.

As the proposition twisted and turned its way through the political and bureaucratic hierarchy in the municipality, it was impossible to single out a universal and explicitly ‘good’ democratic polling station solution. Instead, the election team’s work on the proposition can be viewed as an emergent heterogeneous practice that shapes democratic ‘goods’ and political decisions on polling stations in relation to concerns over accessibility and costs. Thus, as the proposition slowly emerged in the election office, a situated approach to democracy emerged with it and eventually appeared in the final three-page-long proposition. Here, accessibility and voter mobilisation weighed heavily, but were inseparable from legal and financial concerns. Democratic decision-making was performed as something different from bureaucratic casework, as the election team made sense of its work with reference to itself as a pre-existing, non-political, disengaged administrative entity. And as a result, in the neatly ordered proposition, the laborious socio-material practices of rearranging concerns, the ambivalent moments characterised by shifting tensions, the colliding democratic and bureaucratic ideals, and the inevitable twists and turns of the proposition, were erased. As Kimberly Coles (2007) remarks in her study of elections in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the myth of democracy hides the reality of democracy-making.


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