Voting – what’s with all the secrecy?

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When tens of thousands of citizens from the elderly to public sector workers march in protest against government policies that they had voted for, alongside colleagues who did not, is it time to reconsider the primacy of the secret ballot? We live in a society where all are made feel the consequences of choices made at election time but not all voters’ bear equal responsibility for those choices. When people can vote without any expectation of commiserate responsibility for their actions, why would we expect more from our politicians who are drawn from such an electorate?

Twice in a single generation, Irish governments have pursued policies, endorsed by the electorate, that have driven the country onto the economic rocks. While the policies of 1977 and those of 1997 through to 2007 might differ in substance the degree of denial amongst voters is markedly the same. Unlike other forms of public choice, in politics when a majority or large minority choose brand X we are all compelled to live with the consequences.

The government Ireland elected in 19977 proceeded to spend public money in manner likely to cause acute embarrassment to the most intoxicated of seafarers, leaving the bill to the entire adult population 1980s for those decisions. Those who judged it a good idea to reduce or abolish council rates and car tax with no visible means of replacing the lost revenue while increasing the numbers in state employment compelled others to bear the cost. Yet Ireland’s direction in the aftermath might have been changed if those who had supported those policies had to contribute even that bit more towards the clean-up bill.

Our practice, in Ireland, of the secret ballot owes much to events in the mid 1800s; the British Ballot Act of 1872, the advocacy role of the Chartists and events across the Empire such as the Eureka Stockade. Yet even now the secret ballot is not the sole means of making decisions in public life. The cabinet votes may be hidden from the public but not from one another, in the Oireachtas members vote on the public record but parliamentary parties vote in private and only occasionally by secret ballot.

As universal suffrage was extended throughout the world there was considerable legitimate concern that votes would be bought or that people coerced or intimidated into voting a particular way. The concerns that individuals might be coerced are considerably less even though the buying of the votes of sectional interests is now deemed to be perfectly reasonable. Entire groups are bought off with political promises at a cost to the wider population.

If we’re going to preserve the secret ballot as a core element of the political process then we need to ensure that it is not a single event to be forgotten once the count is completed but rather part of a process of longer term engagement and participation. Efforts such as serve as one example of what is possible in making available information about those who represent us and what they actually do. But does anyone have an incentive to access such information. Many people are familiar with the concept of ‘studying form’ when it comes to betting on horse racing but what studying of form do the public do when it comes to politics.

In Alastair Reynolds’ novel “Prefect” a system is devised whereby people’s voting strength is increased based on a collective review of the quality of the outcome of their votes. If one votes for a proposal that is viewed over time as a beneficial then they are credited with more influence at subsequent votes, if the impact was negative their influence is reduced. This provides for feedback into people’s decision making.

Encouragement to vote should come in the form of restructuring a portion of the current tax credits into a Voter’s Tax Credit. Don’t vote and if they can’t provide a very good reason why not they get hit in the pocket. We should also provide a “None of the Above” option on ballots to facilitate genuine abstentions. This should increase voter turnout substantially.

Then in parallel to the existing secret ballot, we allow members of the public to choose to publicly invest the value of their VTC in the specifics of manifesto promises of parties or individual candidates. At the next election, the citizenry are again asked to rate negatively or positively the manifesto promises whether they were implemented or not. The value of your VTC increases and decreases based on the collective opinion of the quality of your decisions.

If the decisions turn out to be poor you pay more tax if they viewed as being to the broader benefit you pay less. The associated impact could fade over the course of each successive election so that citizens are not scarred forever by their youthful choices. When faced so starkly with the prospect of their cold hard cash being on the line might the quality of public decision making improve? That’s my 2c worth. What will you wager?


ED’s Note

This is a step by step time timeline of how such a system might possibly work.

Create a new Voters/Citizens Tax Credit reducing the PAYE tax credit by the same amount, so this is revenue neutral

1) Once a general election campaign has started publish all the various manifestos on-line.

2) The public rate the top 20 promises per party over the course of the campaign

3) 2/3 days before polling this top 20 list is published

4) On polling day a voter may cast up to 27 votes on-line for the 27 manifesto promises they most support across party lines

5) At the time of the next general election, the public again cast their votes on which of those 20 policies from each party they believe in retrospect were the best and worst.

6) The policies as rated by the voters as above average result in increases to your VTC with matching decreases for more poorly rated decisions

7) Adjustments are made in your Voters/Citizens Tax Credit accordingly

8) Repeat the process for the new political promises

I Wrote this for the Sunday Times a few years back – not sure if I have posted it here in this form already.

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