What is Democracy? (53): Secret Ballot, or Public Vote?

The secret ballot has become so common in modern democracies that it’s hardly ever questioned. And yet, there are good reasons why a democratic vote should be public. So, let’s go over the pros and cons of the secret ballot, and see where that gets us.

Advantages of the secret ballot

  • The desire to avoid voter intimidation or bribery is the obvious and most commonly cited justification of the secrecy of the ballot. If people in power know how an individual votes, then this individual may be pressured to vote in a certain way. And “people in power” should be understood in a broad sense, including employers, dominant husbands etc. This justification is based on certain key features of a democracy, namely equal influence, one-man-one-vote etc. The risk of coercion is present even in societies where the general level of coercion is low and democratic values are widely shared. And it’s often the least advantaged who will be coerced, because they have most to gain from changing their vote to please someone else, and most to lose from not doing so.
  • The risk of pressure can also be present in other, more subtle forms. For example, it has been shown that people are afraid to publicly oppose authority figures. Tests have shown that when an authority figure speaks first, there’s less dissent afterwards. An open ballot can lead to forced conformity.

Disadvantages of the secret ballot

  • Implicit in the doctrine of the secret ballot is the assumption that the electoral process is no more than the aggregation of individual preferences which have been fixed previously and independently of the electoral process. However, the voting process is, ideally, also formative of preferences, and not merely an arithmetic process based on fixed preferences. That means that people deliberate and discuss about the best way to vote, about the best candidates and policies. But that also means that people have to present their positions and preferences in public. Maybe the ultimate vote can still be secret, but the initial voting intention can’t be if we want democracy to be a lively debate. But if the voting intention can be public, why not the actual vote?
  • An open ballot allows representatives to know exactly whom they are representing. One of the advantages of this knowledge is that it allows for some efficiency gains. Representatives know who has to be convinced. Those efficiency gains should improve the electoral process.
  • When you vote in an election for representatives or in a referendum, this vote has real consequences. Taken together with the votes of your fellow citizens, your vote is likely to change the lives of a number of people, and sometimes change these lives dramatically. Moreover, those people are likely to be minorities, and hence relatively powerless. It’s therefore important that voters are accountable to their fellow citizens and that they explain and justify the reasons they have for voting in a certain way. This horizontal accountability is incompatible with the secret ballot.
  • Why should we have secret ballots for voters and at the same time open votes in parliament, as is usually the case? After all, the justifications for a secret ballot for voters also apply to representatives. They also may be subject to pressure when it’s known how they vote. Maybe to a lesser extent than some parts of the electorate, since they tend to be wealthy and generally powerful, but still. Representatives are less numerous, and hence it’s easier and more effective to use pressure in order to manipulate a vote. Also, the public nature of representatives’ positions makes them vulnerable to specific kinds of pressure that can’t be applied to ordinary citizens (e.g. they may be blackmailed for indecent private behavior and thereby pressured to vote in a certain way). Of course, representative bodies are different from electorates, and therefore not entirely comparable. For example, it’s hard to see how a representative body can be accountable to the electorate when it votes in secret. Voters have to know what the individual representatives have accomplished, or not, so that they can “throw the bums out” at the next election if necessary. Also, this threat of non-reelection can pressure the representatives to act in ways desired by the electorate. So, pressure – at least some kind of pressure – is part and parcel of the representative process, whereas it’s incompatible with a popular vote. However, even if a vote by representatives isn’t entirely comparable to a vote by the people, it still is somewhat comparable, and people arguing for a secret ballot in a general election will have to explain why their arguments don’t also apply to votes in parliament.
  • Open ballots, both in representative bodies and in general, force people to restrict themselves to preferences and arguments that they can justify to others. If you vote in a certain way, and are seen to be voting in a certain way, people will ask you why. And if you’re pressured to answer this question and to justify your vote (or voting intention), it’s a lot more difficult to be motivated, or to be seen to be motivated by self-interest only. Hence, the open ballot will make voters more sensitive to the general interest, which is a good thing. Also, this public justification tends to improve the quality of preferences, since people have to think about them, argue about them with others etc. That’s the logic of the marketplace of ideas.
  • And, finally, open ballots make electoral fraud a lot more difficult, if not impossible.

Obviously, not all of these advantages and disadvantages have the same importance, and they don’t make it instantly clear whether a secret or an open ballot should be preferred in principle. Much depends on the specific circumstances. For example, in a country with a lot of economic inequality and gender inequality, the case for a secret ballot for voters is relatively strong. In general, a mixed system is probably best. However, we don’t have such a mixed system at the moment. Most modern democracies strongly favor secret ballots, and seem to ignore the real problems resulting from such a system. I believe some more attention should be given to these problems and to possible solutions, which obviously doesn’t mean that we should go to the other extreme and deny people’s right to keep their opinions to themselves if they so wish. There can’t be a duty of free speech.

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4 thoughts on “What is Democracy? (53): Secret Ballot, or Public Vote?”

  1. Voting serves only to select leaders,
    not to directly decide policy

    The “idea that electoral participation means popular control of government is so deeply implanted in the psyches of most Americans that even the most overtly skeptical cannot fully free themselves from it” (Ginsberg)

    From “Democracy without Elections” (Brian Martin)

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  2. “I and Thou”: talking and listening to each other as “unique, unmeasurable, responsive, reflective, and addressable”: such, is engagement as interpersonal communication; ..`…thereof, …
    We all don’t have to vote, yet we all do need within our everyday lives, as within a village, those whom openly of public record choose the person, or the measure, which governs principally: thus, principal in governance is engagement as interpersonal communication: ..`…such, …is democracy .*.

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