Thursday, 13 May 2010

Voting and Secrecy

I've been reading some John Stuart Mill. To be precise, I've been looking at his essay Representative Government. It's a curious text in lots of respects, not least in its arguments for proportional representation, which are largely drawn from a pamphlet Mill had read on the subject. In the course of the work Mill also makes clear that a democracy that doesn't include some recognition of educational qualification for the franchise has problems, even leading him to propose the kind of tests for literacy that were subsequently used to disenfranchise black people in Reconstruction America, not, of course, that he would have expected that!

Amongst other features of this odd work is a chapter in which Mill recants his previous support for the secret ballot in elections. The first part of the argument concerns the question what kind of thing is involved in having the capacity granted one to vote. It is common to treat this as a "right" and it was so argued by John Bright in his, ultimately successful,  campaign for the extension of the franchise to working men in the 1860's. Mill, however, argues against this view of the vote, claiming instead that a vote is not a "right" but a "public trust". The difference, on Mill's view, is that a right does not require consultation of the public in terms of its disposal. Right is thus modelled by Mill on property ownership as he makes clear when he says that if voting is a right then there is no basis for objection to selling one's vote. The odd thing in this claim is that it entails that rights are only, on Mill's view, "private" and cannot be regarded as "public". That which is "public" has to fall under the heading of "trust". Mill's conception is one he here really takes for granted as he provides no argument in the context for thinking that right has to be construed in this way.

If this is a problematic part of Mill's argument it doesn't necessarily go to the core of it. The basic problem he is addressing is that secrecy in relation to voting encourages the view that casting the vote is something one can do without thinking of the consequences of so doing on others. So the difficulty Mill is addressing is how to ensure that voting is related to as a public duty and not merely an exercise of private caprice. One of the interesting elements of this point is that it cuts to the basis for political argument. Often people find political argument distressing and unwelcome, as it certainly can be, particularly when it involves friends or people with whom you are close. However, there is a basic reason why political argument exists which is that by means of it we hope to attain to a fuller understanding of what kinds of actions and principles are most likely to lead to outcomes we can generally see are the best for the greatest number of those affected. Putting it like that gives it a kind of utilitarian twist and, in some sense, utilitarian considerations surely are important in politics. They are far from the only considerations, however, since, in addition, there are questions touching on political right in the sense Mill seems not to allow.

Leaving aside the problem of public right for now, however, Mill's basic case against the secret ballot is that it detracts from the need to take consideration of the public good when it is cast. Mill is not insensible to the contrary argument that making voting public creates a potential problem of intimidation and acting under duress. In response, however, Mill tended to think that the wide extension of the franchise would militate against this since he assumes that under a universal franchise there will be no effective power that can counter that of the general public. In this he was, as Habermas has since indicated in detail, seriously mistaken. Mill did not account for the rise of a mass media that had concentrated ownership and whose owners might not have any particular connection even with the public voting due to not even being citizens of the polity. This effective power is not, of course, one that has any way of affecting a secret ballot in any direct sense but its representatives could have even more influence than they currently do in an open ballot. More widely Mill does not seriously consider the arrival of any type of organised pressure on those voting by agitators of many kinds. This is a clear blindness in his analysis.

However two key questions emerge from thinking about Mill's arguments against the secret ballot. Firstly, what sense if any can we give to describing voting as a "right"? This question relates to the problem of what is involved in thinking of such a notion as "public right" at all, a notion that Mill seems not to allow. Secondly, what are the limits of publicity in regard to public right? If we disagree with Mill and support the secret ballot then we do think that certain things which are closely connected to the public good are not necessarily themselves best understood in terms of a principle of publicity. If this applies to the case of voting then what else does it apply to? 

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