The Secret Ballot: A Tool For Tyrants

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Column by Paul Bonneau.

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It’s funny how human beings can become so attached to a meme, that they can’t even imagine life without it. As the Wikipedia article on the secret ballot puts it, “Today the practice of casting secret ballots is so commonplace that most voters would not consider that any other method might be used.” It is somehow imagined to be almost identical with democracy; but the secret ballot didn’t even enter America until 1888. Grover Cleveland was the first president elected with this procedure. 

It is worth a look at the article on political privacy, of which the secret ballot is a part. For example, “Because politics is fundamentally about settling disputes, and includes appointing officials to hold a monopoly on violence, it puts winners and losers in unique positions to avenge themselves on each other.”

 
Of course an anarchist might question the premise. Often politics appears to be a lot more about creating disputes than about settling them; normally decorous forums and email lists can turn into battlegrounds when election season rolls around. But beyond that, is being “in unique positions to avenge themselves on each other” necessarily a bad thing?
 
Actions have consequences. Voting is an action. What the secret ballot does is socialize the consequences. This recalls the old critique of policies that “privatize profits and socialize losses,” such as bankster bailouts. The idea here is that one can vote to impose on others without subsequently facing any sanction for having done so. In our strange, twisted world, this is imagined to be desirable.
 
During the Spanish Inquisition, a person could anonymously accuse another, who would then ultimately be subject to the infamous “auto da fe.” This privacy policy was certainly a good thing for the evil bastards employed by the Inquisition, but we may be pardoned for questioning its utility generally. Yet this policy is just another example of the ideal of political privacy!
 
In an era in which government routinely scans our emails, databases are used to determine our preferences with amazing accuracy, banks report our movement of funds and TSA fondles our genitals, one has to wonder whether the secret ballot’s time has passed--at least from our point of view if not from the rulers’. The very people we most want to avoid knowing about us, those with the monopoly on violence, are the ones who can know everything about us; it takes a lot of work to remain private. Privacy is mostly gone, folks! Given that circumstance, of what use is the secret ballot? Does it really harm us if government knows which branch of the Boot-On-Your-Neck Party we voted for? Why would that be worse than them knowing we didn’t vote at all, which is currently the case?
 
Someone might claim, “Well, if your vote was known, your boss might fire you for voting the wrong way.” Again, what is so bad about that? Shouldn’t we prefer to associate with people who agree with us anyway, with people who don’t want to impose on us? Should someone be forced to associate with others who are reprehensible to him? As a practical matter, this worry sounds a little bit like “The sky is falling!” After you’ve worked at a place for a while, you have a pretty good idea of the political opinions of others. Yet in most places, the need for good workers trumps the political considerations; or at least the latter must be kept to a low roar, to remain competitive in the market.
 
The secret ballot in fact causes strife, rather than averts it (remember, “divide and conquer” is how tyrants control us). Why? It prevents the possibility of other systems appearing that could make society function a lot smoother than it currently does. To illustrate this point, think of what voting now accomplishes: what I call “general consequences.” An example would be a ballot measure on the imposition of a tax. If it passes, everyone has to pay it. That is the very definition of tyranny: 51% of the population imposing on the other 49% (or on even more, of course, when you add in those who didn’t vote or who weren’t permitted to vote). Why is this thought of as good?
 
As opposed to these “general consequences,” let’s imagine an alternative system, call it “vote-specific consequences” (there may be more official terms for these concepts floating around out there somewhere that I am unaware of). If individual’s votes were recorded and available for inspection on the Internet, then the consequences could be tied to the specific vote, rather than socialized. If you voted for a tax, you would be responsible for paying it, but those who voted against it or who didn’t vote would not be. All of a sudden, the violence would be removed from the system. You wouldn’t feel guilty for imposing on others (assuming guilt is an issue with the current system, which morally it should be), because no one would be coerced. Isn’t this manifestly a better way of doing things? Wouldn’t it take the heat and worry out of political campaigns?
 
Getting back to the worry about your boss taking revenge on you for your vote, wouldn’t that worry simply dissipate? Why would he take revenge? You did nothing to impose on him. You caused him to pay no tax he didn’t want to pay. “Vote-specific consequences” is the way to escape this problem, not a thing that exacerbates it.
 
The secret ballot prevents this improvement. It is joined at the hip with “general consequences,” and with the tyranny associated with it. It also enables vote fraud, since you cannot see your vote tabulated. Public recording of votes would make vote fraud impossible.
 
I suppose it is possible to imagine the secret ballot disappearing and still having “general consequences,” but it is not a natural fit. The U.S. did not have the secret ballot in the beginning and there were general consequences, but not so many of them as we have today. And eventually the system transformed into using secret ballots, which is a more natural fit with “general consequences.” Of course, back then we had no technological infrastructure to pull off a system based on “vote-specific consequences,” as we do have today. We couldn’t have got there even if we wanted to (not that the ruling class would have wanted that).
 
All well and good, but what about elections for people rather than ballot measures?
 
While I personally don’t have a lot of use for “representative government,” it’s possible to modify it in a way that works with “vote-specific consequences.” We would rightly junk the silly notion that these guys represent us even when we voted against them. Instead we could implement a non-territorial “at large” election system, where you vote for one of a large selection of possible representatives who act much more as your proxy than currently. The representative would have a voting weight in the legislature equivalent to the number of constituent proxies he holds, and the bills that get passed would be imposed only on those constituents whose representative voted for it--this might become a bit complex, although the current statutes are not known for their simplicity, either! One might even imagine a system of Internet-based instantaneous movement of proxies, so that a representative’s legislative weight would vary from day to day according to the changing positions he holds. This may make lying a bit less useful to politicians, heh.
 
“Vote-specific consequences” is in fact a way to Panarchy, that might be a lot less easy to implement without it.
 
Although the secret ballot may be the political equivalent of an improved buggy whip, a holdover that probably made more sense in the 19th Century, I don’t expect it to disappear soon--unless we get a revolution of course, then anything is possible. But maybe we should start questioning it a bit more, breaking down this harmful meme, so that when the time comes, we can replace it with something a bit less friendly to tyranny.
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Paul Bonneau's picture
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