Your Vote: Keep It Secret, Keep It Safe

First published on Whale Oil

Ever the most quotable of politicians, Winston Churchill had many things to say about democracy, all of them positive (the disparaging “the average voter” quote, is apocryphal). Famously, Winston Churchill said that “at the bottom of all the tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper”.

One of the most important features of modern democracy, and at the same time, one most taken for granted, is the secret ballot. Yet, it is a relatively modern invention. Called the Australian ballot because they were first widely used in Australia (in fact, the first was held right here in Tasmania), secret ballots began to be introduced to the English-speaking world from the 1850s.

Before that, voting was a public act, usually done orally, or by a show of hands. Even when paper ballots were introduced, votes were still cast publicly. Large crowds of onlookers invariably looked on. This seems unimaginable to modern voters.

Or perhaps not.

One of the most disturbing trends to emerge from Australia’s same-sex marriage survey is people using social media to proudly display their completed form. Users stamp their profile pictures with filters showing how they voted.

While there haven’t been similar filters for national elections, there have been ones to show that people voted in U.S. Presidential elections or the Scottish referendum. The next step only seems logical.

This might seem like typical social media nonsense: virtue-signalling in return for “Likes”, but in reality, it heralds a far more sinister trend.

Secret ballots were introduced for reason. When voting was an exclusive, gentlemen’s club, public ballots were generally orderly, almost consensual. As the franchise grew, however, the process became more disorderly and competitive, especially as party politics solidified.

Corruption soon followed. Public voting meant intimidation and vote buying was common. As historian Jill Lepore explains, when “I can know that you actually voted the way I paid you to vote … I can buy your votes, and you can sell your votes. Or I can beat you up if you don’t vote for Smith. Or, if I am your boss … I can fire you”. In the U.S., endemic fraud culminated in the vote-buying scandal of the 1888 Presidential election.

Authoritarian regimes have often sought to circumvent secret ballots. In the 1924 Italian elections, gangs of Mussolini’s Fascists intimidated voters, or simply took ballot papers off people they thought voted against them. In the elections that propelled Hitler to power, brownshirts at polling stations gave out pre-marked ballots and watched while voters cast ballots in booths with viewing slots cut in them.

But voter intimidation need not be so brutal. In 1984, Winston Smith joins in the Two Minutes of Hate because to do otherwise is to invite suspicion of Thoughtcrime. “Of course he chanted with the rest: it was impossible to do otherwise. To dissemble your feelings, to control your face, to do what everyone else was doing … [but] the expression of his eyes might conceivably have betrayed him.”

The terror of not being seen to go along publicly with the “correct” opinions is common to authoritarian regimes. In fascist Japan and Communist China, people were subjected to “thought examinations”: spilling out their secret thoughts on paper. The Maoists organised mass rallies of public confession that survivors describe as “an extremely grave war on nerves … more devastating than any kind of torture”.

Social media intimidation is far more insidious, but what are its effects? “Cyber-bullying” is taken for granted, but what else can it be called when people openly proclaim, “vote ‘Yes’, or I’ll unfriend you”? What happens when using a Facebook “rainbow” filter or not essentially declares one’s vote? Leftists have developed a mania for doxxing alleged ideological opponents. In Australia, a worker was sacked for declaring their “No” vote on Facebook. In Britain, National Trust volunteers who declined to wear rainbow badges were ordered out of public sight.

As the old song says, “you don’t know what you got till it’s gone”. A secret vote is something voters take for granted, but it has an enormous impact on democracy. Brexit and Trump stunned pundits. Like the same-sex marriage survey, political, media and elite opinion were overwhelming. It was simply unthinkable – “deplorable” – to say otherwise publicly.

But, when someone walks into that little booth, they are free to think and vote however they please. This is one of the greatest gifts of our democracy. Giving it away, especially for the sake of mere social media back-pats, is fraught with peril.

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