Abolish the secret ballot

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
7 June 2001

Across the so-called “advanced” or richer democracies, a decline in voting is taking place in countries where the ballot is not compulsory. It is not a uniform or steady decline but the trend seems clear. Fewer people are voting, and younger people especially are less likely to exercise their vote.

One explanation on offer is that traditional politics is in decline. Politicians have less power to influence events in an era of globalisation. As they become less important, voting does too. A different reason often advanced is that there is little to choose between politicians anyway. Here the argument is not that politicians could not make a difference. On the contrary, it is rather that we are prevented from electing those who could do so, by various national systems, which ensure that the choice on offer is between two peas from the same pod. It is little wonder, therefore, that growing numbers do not bother.

Both these arguments explain the decline in voter turnout as a rational response to powerlessness. Voting, as the cliché goes, doesn’t change anything. The more people realise this, the less they vote.

But if voting doesn’t change anything, not voting changes even less. The odd thing about such arguments is that while they claim to see through the status quo, they serve it rather than subvert it.

Dollar democracy

This phenomenon can be seen in its clearest form in the United States, which has no effective restraints on election expenditures. There, to enter public life as a politician is to become a money raising and spending machine, dependent on the concentrated wealth of others.

The more that huge sums are spent in elections, the more voters believe their politicians have been bought. In the United States a new social law can be discerned. Namely, an inverse correlation between the amount spent and voter turnout. In other words, the more dollars are expended to influence the outcome of elections, the lower is the proportion of the electorate who actually vote.

It only appears to be the case that the dollars, and the advertisements which they buy, are dedicated to persuading voters of the need to vote for or against one or other representative. In fact, when the same business pays money to both sides to protect its interests and then the two sides spend that money on negative TV commercials trashing the other side’s record, abstention starts to become a civilised and dignified response.

Take a step back from the US elections. Billions of dollars are spent on them, for only half the registered population to turn out. If this was a waste of their money, companies and corporations would spend less. As it is, they spend more and more, and people vote less and less. If the companies are getting value for money, it follows that the real function of such expenditures is to repel people from the polls. A huge amount of money is spent – in effect, to ensure that people are alienated from voting. This is the making of a plutocracy, rule by the rich for the rich.

To refuse to have anything to do with this by not voting is a natural reaction. But it is also to play the rich men’s game. Instead, those who are democrats (with a small ‘d’) should be thinking about how to reverse this situation and make voting matter more.

Declining turnout is not just a function of money. One of the unsung achievements of the first Blair administration was to pass an electoral law that limits party political expenditure and continues to forbid the buying of commercial airtime. In Britain, the commercialisation of politics is achieved more through spin doctors and the marketing of policies as commodities, rather than through the heaving corruption of the American system. The decline in turnout is not as great in the UK as in the US, but is still marked.

Owning our votes

Can anything be done to turn around the disenchantment with voting? Well, the first thing that needs to be said is that voting is going to become more important, not less. If the environmental arguments are half right, then a sustainable world will need organised restraint. This has to be achieved politically. That is to say by government. Such governments will either be answerable to their voters or they will be dictatorships.

We need our votes. And we need to stop them from being stolen, bought, manipulated or even manufactured. The small grain of sand which each citizen now has, should become more clearly ours. We need to own it before we aim it.

One way to achieve this, essential in countries with first-past-the-post elections, is a good system of proportional representation so that our votes count. Another is to abolish the secrecy of the ballot. We should stop voting surreptitiously, in the dark, expressing our views as if they were a dirty secret between ourselves and our maker.

I surprise myself in making the suggestion. A couple of months ago it would not have occurred to me to think of attacking the secret ballot. I have more than once exercised the private delights of acting differently behind the curtains of the voting booth from what was expected of me in public. It was a genuine freedom, to protest, to vote Green or Liberal, and break from the pressures of tribal loyalty… and then to smile at the dinner table amongst the Labour talk.

The perils of e-democracy

The idea came to me in a seminar discussion on the application of information technology to voting systems. Specialist companies are now selling such systems to newly emerging democracies. A representative of one of these companies described the experience of installing such a system. We were left with the distinct impression of rulers delighted to be offered an instrument which gave them the ability to programme majorities region by region, to reconfirm themselves in office.

Another participant objected strongly to replacing the ballot box with the internet, because it removes the shared experience of electing your own government, so notably demonstrated in the first full and free elections in South Africa. We were told such objections were futile. They would prove to be the protests of a Canute, the incoming tide of electronic voting is unstoppable.

Let’s suppose it is. The problem which follows is clear. The US has given us plenty of illustrations of the potential for rigging results offered by voting machines. If you cannot securely trace back every vote counted to each vote cast, there is an opportunity for abuse. The amount of abuse is bound to grow as the traditional symbolism of going to a polling station wanes. In Britain, in an attempt to boost turnout, postal voting has just been made much easier. There is also talk of setting up polling stations in supermarkets… and of using the internet.

Such reforms may be well-intentioned. If the voter will not come to the ballot box, the ballot must be taken to the voter. The immediate result, however, has been rumours of abuse, the dead have been enrolled, postal ballots have been filled in by women under the watchful eyes of their men, and so on.

Another step toward adulthood

There is one obvious way of making an honest system out of voting. And that is by abolishing the secrecy of the ballot. If we obtain clear authenticated proof of how we voted, and if this evidence can be traced to a vote counted, and the outcome then published, name by name, voting will cease to be a highly manipulated mystery. The process will become more direct and transparent, and much harder to fiddle. If we want politicians to be accountable, citizens should be accountable as well.

The secret ballot was first used in Australia in 1854. Over the next thirty years it became the norm in most of Europe, and the United States adopted it in the mid-1880s. Its introduction accompanied the extension of the mass franchise and the effort to make it effective and legitimate, in conditions of mass illiteracy and powerful economic and religious bonds, which it also helped to dissolve. The secret vote protected people from intimidation and prevented gross abuse and bribery. It was a positive advance.

But where the conditions which created it no longer apply, why should the secret ballot continue? Its perpetuation now preserves the dependency and weakness of citizens which it was initially designed to combat, while modern methods of counting reinforce its potential for abuse.

I am not suggesting that voting should take place in public, where the crowd can observe the vote. I am suggesting that how people vote should be published afterward - that a private and protected action should no longer be secret, and instead should be traceable.

Of course, this will expose people to the pressures which the secret ballot diminished, even if it failed to prevent them completely. But in an age of much greater education, more articulated public argument, it is better to have such pressures out in the public realm and combat them there. If every ballot offers the option ‘None of the above’, as it should, this will help those who do not want to toe the line of their colleagues or employees but are fearful of voting against them.

Let’s end the privatisation of the ballot box. The outcome will not be flawless, but the flaws will be public ones. The integrity of the vote will be secured especially from ballot stuffing and the untraceable additional votes of voting machines, postal ballots and internet manipulation. Citizens will take another step towards adulthood.

Especially young citizens who are repelled by the emptiness of official politics, who want to be heard in their own voice.

Nor should such a change be confined to rich countries where people are “ready” for it. Some of the most important battles against intimidation of voters and falsification of results are in so-called emerging democracies which lack rule-based institutions to oversee counting fairly. Here, more than anywhere, clear honest systems are needed to be seen to be in operation.

What better way is there for a person to know that their vote has been counted, than for it to be openly recorded?

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