Voting is perhaps the cornerstone of our democracy. However else we want to furnish the concept, at its heart is a notion that the people can have their say at the ballot box. That say must be without qualification.
I understand why some people might wish for votes to be made public because it would force people to justify their decision. When it is so easy for people to selectively hear the news they want to hear, when the media can whip up resentment with such ease, we might be concerned that some people vote for a party or MP without really considering the consequences.
And why should we be reticent to tell people for whom we vote? Surely, if we are ready to vote for Labour or the Tories, we will have a set of reasons for doing so and won’t be afraid of telling others those reasons?
While this is a valid complaint, there are so many more important reasons to keep votes private, not only legally, but also in how we treat the subject in conversation. It’s not just the case that votes should be kept private, but rather that they must be kept so.
Asking for votes not to be kept private is akin to asking for people to justify their vote. But asking for this justification suggests that some votes are justified and others are not. We might say that the person is confused or has misunderstood an issue, and having to justify their vote might help them realise this. But this assumes that votes need to be based on fact. What if one votes on how they feel, or simply on their preferences (rational or otherwise)? Should we disallow motives like these because they don’t stand up to justification?
It may be disheartening when somebody votes for a party just because they felt like it. We may feel uneasy when someone votes out of fear or prejudice. But there really is no way to prevent this. Democracy and private voting is not perfect, but its probably the best option we have. We cannot and must not stop people from voting. It is that institution that ties citizens to the politicians who represent them and the democracy under which they live.
That doesn’t mean we can’t implore people to consider their votes more carefully. But changing the rules and norms around privacy is not the way to do this. Pragmatically, forcing votes into the open is going to be a disincentive for those already less inclined to vote.
It is precisely the engaged and politically active members of society who are less hesitant about letting people know for whom they voted. But for those who are less engaged, who don’t enjoy ‘talking politics’ the privacy surrounding the ballot box is probably a welcome break.
In essence, talking about politics is not the same as caring about politics. For whatever reason someone might want to keep their vote secret or private, we should allow them to do so. Voting is important and it should be taken seriously, but it should not be daunting or intimidating.
Furthermore, privacy sometimes allows you to make a more considered decision than if your vote weren’t private. Consider election privacy in JCR and society elections. If you have multiple friends running for the same position, it is difficult enough knowing for whom to vote. Privacy at the ballot box means that you can make a proper decision, without fear of upsetting anyone. The privacy afforded to you, both formally and in that you don’t feel pressured to answer when asked, enhances the democratic process rather than hindering it.
In 1872, the secret ballot was introduced. Until then, voting was a public affair, with everyone – your boss, your spouse, your MP – knowing how you voted. The results of this introduction were dramatic, especially in Ireland, where the nationalist cause prospered as a result of the landlords no longer being able to intimidate their tenants. Change was in the air, and it felt good.
Fast-forward to 2015: a general election is less than ten weeks away and the question of which party to vote for is increasingly coming up. Are you a dastard Tory or a soft-hearted Lib Dem? A head-in-the-sands Labourite or a guilty UKIPer? The question will only get more pressing as the approaching election looms larger and larger.
However, in amongst all this election fever, there lies the possibility for an enormous social faux-pas; namely, asking people how they intend to vote. Such a question can induce instant scorn, and even a little a bit of outrage, that someone could ask such a personal question. It’s akin to asking about someone’s sex life or religion in terms of crassness.
But why is this the case? After all, voting is in many ways the most public act a person can carry out. It is certainly the act which most directly affects others: your vote helps to decide who gets to tax other people and who is in charge of vital services those people need to survive, such as health or education. It even decides who has the ultimate power over other people’s lives, whether on the battlefield or in the prison cells. The direct correlation between your actions and its effect on other people is abundantly clear.
As such, the notion that voting is a private decision is ludicrous. It is not something that you should feel entitled to conceal, especially when it has such an important impact on the lives of so many people. Rather, in the ideal world, it is something you should feel comfortable telling most people who ask, and indeed justifying to them why you voted the way you did. Such honesty is the start of political debate, which is healthy and necessary for a democracy to work.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t have a secret ballot, far from it. A secret ballot is necessary to stop voter intimidation. Indeed, historically it has been a great cause of liberation, allowing people to vote for progress, secure in the knowledge that they would be free from recrimination in the workplace or elsewhere.
But the fact that you are rightly not forced to tell people whom you vote for is not a reason not to tell people. In the vast majority of situations, slight judgement is the only possible adverse side effect, and, given that the decision you are making affects them also, such judgement is something you should be willing to endure.
Our right to vote is cherished as the hallmark of our society, and yet we exercise that right too lightly. The rhetoric of rights and responsibilities is clichéd to the point of self-parody, but as with every cliché, it holds a kernel of truth. We must honour the responsibility society has given us by thinking long and hard about how to exercise that responsibility. Part of this includes exposing our ideas to potential criticism, and justifying those ideas to fellow citizens, whose future every vote helps to decide.
So, next time someone asks you for whom you are going to vote, engage with them. This isn’t religion or sex, it’s politics. And remember, your vote affects them just as much as it does you.