Preserving our democracy with secret ballots 

By Nicholas Gruen

Wednesday February 17, 2021

Adobe

As a parliamentary representative, Edmund Burke wrote that he owed his constituents not just his industry but his judgement, and that if he voted according to their opinions rather than his own judgement, he would betray rather than serve them. This failure to flatter his audience helps explain why he’s better remembered today as a philosopher than as a practitioner of politics. But the distinction he makes gives us a key to mending our democracy – with a short term hack that can begin the process of rethinking the way our democracy works. 

Today, when push comes to shove, politicians’ allegiance is neither to their judgement nor their constituents’ opinion but to their party. (Political parties were in their infancy in Burke’s time). Today it is not uncommon for legislative chambers around the world to have voted against the judgement of the overwhelming majority of their own members and even, at the same time, against the people’s wishes – all at the behest of party bosses. 

I’d include numerous votes of the UK parliament regarding Brexit and various decisions of US Congressmen and women culminating in the failure to find Donald Trump guilty. As we learned over the weekend, Republican party leader Mitch McConnell described President Trump’s conduct as a “disgraceful dereliction of duty”. 

That conduct moved Trump’s political opponents to some genuine eloquence rather than the usual play-acting. As Chuck Schumer put it:

Five years ago, Republican senators lamented what might become of their party if Donald Trump became their presidential nominee and standard-bearer. Just look at what has happened. Look at what Republicans have been forced to defend. Look at what Republicans have chosen to forgive. The former president tried to overturn the results of a legitimate election and provoked an assault on our own government, and well over half the Senate Republican conference decided to condone it. The most despicable act that any president has ever committed, and the majority of Republicans cannot summon the courage, the morality to condemn it. 

But in some respects, Australia was a leader in this dismal story. In 2013 our parliament abolished carbon pricing. In addition to those in the Labor and Green parties who suffered minimal tension between their consciences and their party line, a hefty proportion of Liberal Party MPs voted against their better judgement. It stopped serious progress on carbon emissions, costs the budget over $10 billion a year and will surely be slowly reversed over the coming years. 

This degree of dysfunction is something we should ponder deeply. But we can start doing that while we act – with a ‘hack’ that goes back to our roots. In the 19th century, Australia led the world in the adoption of the secret ballot to free up individual voters from the invidious tension Burke identifies between their private judgement and the expectations imposed on them by others.

The legislators voting against their better judgement in 2013 in Australia, in the UK regarding  Brexit and in the US in both impeachment trials, did so because the alternative was career ruin. A secret ballot of the relevant chambers would have constrained the power of their parties and so protected the public interest. 

Of course legislators should be accountable for their votes so their votes should be public. But there are reasonable exceptions. Thus for instance, in Australia the election of presiding officers of both houses is already held by secret ballot. This expedient aligns parliamentary procedure with the wisdom of Burke’s maxim to value MP’s judgement first and foremost. And, if you accept that choosing the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate is MPs own business, not directly that of their constituents, it does no harm to the wider objective of accountability. 

We could use similar expedients to erect additional checks and balances against party discipline dominating the judgement of elected representatives. Thus I’ve previously argued that a standing citizens’ assembly chosen, as juries are, by lot from the people could be given the power to raise the stakes for parties seeking to coral their representatives into disregarding their own judgement. 

Where a chamber of the legislature voted against the considered opinion of the people – as represented by a substantial majority of the citizens’ assembly – that assembly could require the chamber to vote again, this time by secret ballot. 

Had we had such a system in 2013, Australia would not have stumbled into the disastrous climate change policy it has today, and, as I’ve argued, Britain would be navigating its numerous and ongoing Brexit dilemmas more conscientiously. 

Meanwhile, in the US, the Senate might have structured its verdict on the former president as a procedural vote followed by a substantive vote. The first procedural vote would be by open ballot, and would determine, by a simple majority, whether the substantive vote should be by open or secret ballot. I think a majority would have voted for a secret ballot and, having thus loosed the vice-like grip of party discipline would have struck a blow for true accountability rather than its tawdry simulacrum.

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