Keeping Secrets

I wrote, a while ago now, about the electoral practices of Georgian England, including the brazen, and fantastically expensive, corruption which elections involved. This weekend, the BBC published a fascinating story by Alasdair Gill, looking at a change in the electoral rules that happened during the Victorian age ― in 1872, to be precise ― and which helped put an end to the corruption, as well as the violence, which also used to be an inextricable part of a British election campaign: the introduction of the secret ballot.

We now take “the secrecy of the polling booth” for granted, as well as the fact that elections do not involve brawls, injury, or even death. But as Mr. Gill reminds us, “[u]ntil the Ballot Act was passed in 1872, voters had declared their candidate openly, leading to drunken fights, intimidation and bribery.” Each elector’s vote was recorded in a “poll book” ― and if he had not done as he had been told, those doing the telling would know:

[d]eciding who to vote for was previously a dilemma not just for you but for your boss at the local factory or your landlord, both of whom could see you out of your job or your house.

And for those who could not be threatened, there was always bribery of varying degrees of subtlety, including booze by the pint, quart, and gallon. For instance,

[i]n Gloucester during parliamentary elections in 1857 and 1859 the Tory party agent gave out food and drink to local supporters and lavished funds on Tory voters who acted as messengers, flag-bearers and bandsmen.

On other occasions, votes were simply bought, with supply and demand determining the price. On one occasion cited by Mr. Gill, a vote went for “about £14 – £1,200 in today’s money.”

And there was violence, ranging from “voters being kidnapped, plied with alcohol and then marched to the polls with a candidate’s name in their ear,” to “gangs” that “smashed windows around the venue of the hustings and waved poles topped with the severed heads of sheep,” to actual murder.

Incredible as it may seem now, there were quite a few people who liked things to be that way. According to a professor quoted by Mr. Gill, some thought “that it was only right for people to vote in an open fashion because that was the responsible thing to do.” Others simply “liked the parties and the bribes.” And, of course, many politicians were reluctant to let go an electoral system that had worked well for them, although it would have been interesting if Mr. Gill had discussed the effects of the Reform Acts of 1832 and, especially, of 1868 on the politicians’ views. Both of these statutes expanded the franchise, the latter quite dramatically, and the expenses on booze and thuggery which might have been sustainable with relatively few voters to bribe or intimidate might have become unsustainable as the country moved towards universal suffrage, which may well have helped overcome the resistance of some incumbent MPs.

* * *

In my post on 18th-century elections, I pointed out that it is sometimes “enough to enjoy the similarities and the differences between the past and the present for their own sake, as curiosities,” without attempting to draw lessons from them. Here, however,  there is actually a pretty obvious lesson to be learned.

It is that rules on ballot secrecy, including provisions, such as par. 164(2)(b) of the Canada Elections Act, which provides that “no elector shall … show his or her ballot, when marked, so as to allow the name of the candidate for whom the elector has voted to be known,” exist for a very good reason. When people are prosecuted for infringing such rules ― even when they are just proud and excited voters tweeting their pride and excitement for the world to see ― they are not the victims of a brutish Leviathan enforcing obsolete rules that serve no useful purpose. These rules protect us from the abuses that become possible when ballots are not secret ― abuses that are not the figments of some incumbent-protecting imagination, but a well-documented feature of our past.

Remarkably, Steven Fielding, another academic quoted by Mr. Gill, believes that the secret ballot is not that important anymore. “You might think,” muses, “that if people are voting secretly, then they are voting for their own selfish interests.” In his view, the secret ballot was introduced because “you couldn’t police [public voting] properly to protect people from intimidation, but you could do that now.”

I suspect, however, that Mr. Fielding is wrong both counts. He is certainly wrong to claim that the secret ballot causes people to vote selfishly ― simply because, as for example Jason Brennan recently pointed out over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians,

we have overwhelming empirical evidence, drawn from hundreds of studies, that they don’t vote their self-interest. Instead, they vote altruistically, for what they perceive to be in the national interest.

And Mr. Fielding is, it seems to me, much too optimistic to believe that we could police the intimidation that would result from our votes being made public. Intimidation can be subtle, and ― almost by definition ― victims will often be reluctant to complain. Add to this the pressures of this era of online shaming, and you have a recipe for abuses that will perhaps take a somewhat different form, but a no less disturbing magnitude, than those of the Victorian age.

“Maybe we don’t need the secret ballot any more,” wonders Mr. Fielding. Actually, we do. It was one of the greatest inventions of a century that did not lack for them, and there is no reason to give it up.

NOTE: The situation in Canada, before the secret ballot was introduced here in 1875, was no better than in the UK. I don’t discuss it here because I’ll probably do at least one separate post on the history of Canadian voting arrangements, based on an excellent account available at the Elections Canada website.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach public law at the University of Reading, in the United Kingdom. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and did graduate work at the NYU School of Law. I then taught in New Zealand before taking up my current position at Reading.

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