Abolish Secret Ballots

[Note: This is a guest post by O.B. Haag-Lieg of the Open Vote Initiative]

It’s time to put an end to secret ballots — it’s time for an #OpenVote.

I know how it sounds, and I understand. Anonymous voting used to be an important protection. However, that was when we had a culture of repression. In modern democracies we have open discussion and nobody is unfairly harassed by the powers that be for criticizing the status quo. On the contrary, today it’s anonymity that enables harassment. That raises the question if the dangers of allowing anonymous voting has begun to eclipse the benefits. I for one am convinced that it has.

We need to acknowledge that there’s an essential difference between healthy dissent and acting on false, outdated and dangerous beliefs. Secrecy was meant to protect the powerless, not those acting in bad faith and voting for harmful policies by malice, selfishness, or because of being fed disinformation. Yes, it’s good when anonymity stands as a bulwark against oppressive power, but it’s bad when it stands as a roadblock against healthy influence.

The core of democracy is accountability. Having to gain and keep the support of the electorate holds leaders accountable to the people, that is what makes democracy what it is. But it doesn’t go far enough. By having to approve of politicians, the people are the true rulers, and as such they must also be held accountable.

Accountable to whom? To each other!

Secret ballots has gone from having guaranteed democracy to becoming a threat to it. Today we have the frankly intolerable situation where selfish or ignorant people can vote for policies that harm others and there’s no way to hold them accountable for their actions. How is this at all fair? It has got to end. The right to vote doesn’t mean the right to vote without consequences.

With open voting, where everyone’s vote would be registered in a public record (a blockchain solution would be ideal), every citizen would be accountable, not to an oppressive regime, not to an elite at the top of the pyramid, but to their fellow citizens. The difference is stark; unlike in formal hierarchies when power comes from grabbing it in the most ruthless way possible, becoming influential in free social communities is the result of others granting their attention and trust to the clearly wisest and most empathetic among them. While in the past anonymity hid knowledge from power hungry elites, it now hides it from deserving community leaders who’ve earned their positions fairly — because truth, prudence, and wisdom reliably reflect positively on the person in possession of them.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. Under an open voting scheme you can still keep your views to yourself all you want. Just don’t vote. Keep what you want private as long as you forfeit your right to make decisions that affect other people. It’s actually very simple: if you don’t want to be seen you don’t get to be heard.

It’s a healthy principle because we all know that anonymity makes us worse people. Scientists have demonstrated the “watching eye effect” where just putting up a picture of a pair of watchful eyes makes us more likely to put our coffee cups in the dishwasher instead of in the sink. Anonymity, on the other hand, gives us road rage and online trolls. Removing anonymous speech would be a great leap forward for accountability, but speech is only soft power. The hard political power of the vote is what it all comes down to in the end, so that’s an even clearer cut case in favor of accountability.

Yes, as any parent of teenagers knows, we make better decisions when watched by our peers. We listen to our better angels, make the right decisions, and apprehend the truth the best when under the scrutiny of others. How could this be any more obvious? If it wasn’t true there’d certainly be a lot of waste in society on things that are just for show.

Antisocial modes of decision making where everyone votes their own interests, atomized, “free” to be as selfish and biased as they want, hurts the vulnerable destroys communities and the planet. The “wisdom of the crowd” principle tells us that the more interconnected we are and the more we know about each other’s beliefs the better decisions we make, and the famous “convergence experiments” by Solomon Asch showed us how being sensitive to feedback and influence from others improves our decision making.

We must harness these effects for positive change. All that’s required from the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing — but to do something we need the means. We must know when something has to be done, who needs to be properly educated or, failing that, encouraged to remove themselves from the exercise of power.

Abolishing anonymous voting isn’t a big change. The proposal is modest, but with great potential to empower those with moral clarity and let them know where the problem lies. Politics today is too anodyne and bloodless, plagued by timidity and self-doubt that keeps us from fighting for what we know is right. Making everybody take their stance in public would reinvigorate political life. Many are angry about stubborn obstacles to change, and that pent-up energy can and must be channeled towards something positive. We must use that anger, it gives us focus, makes us stronger.

Today, people can exercise voting power without having to justify themselves to coworkers, friends and family or the public. Open voting would solve this problem through its positive knock-on effects. You could be held accountable not just for your own vote and thus your own influence on society, but for the votes of everyone you know and associate with. Before dating, befriending or hiring someone you’d be able — duty-bound! — to check their vote and then decide whether you can in good conscience support them.

It will be impossible to not take your responsibility for preventing harm. That’s the beauty of the Open Vote Initiative. It’s accountability all the way down, for your own life and for the lives of others. Only that way we can make sure everybody is on the right side of history, and thus exercise what the social scientist Timur Kuran called “preference verification” — the gradual personal betterment that reveals that your true desire is the good as judged by the community.

The antisocial will stop voting, but in the long term this will become suspicious as well. Why don’t you vote? If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem. If you think something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be thinking it in the first place. Because you know when you’re wrong, deep down, you know when you’re trash. Deep down, you know that you deserve to be punished. In the future this problem will be gone, because not voting will be like not being on social media: a sure sign someone is not quite to be trusted.

At the Open Vote Initiative we believe that when you give everyone a voice and give people power, the system usually ends up in a really good place. So, what we view our role as, is giving people that power. We want to shine a disinfecting light all across society. Anonymous voting erect barriers and prevents the healing effects of social influence from reaching into every heart and mind. Anonymity and the pathologies that fester in the shadow it provides has created vicious polarization, and something needs to restore harmony by finding and curing, or isolating, the disease vectors. That way we can build true harmony: a deliberative democracy where everyone has gets to be deeply involved. We will then leave behind our trivial, selfish lives, and be reborn with a greater purpose.

Democracy dies in darkness. Grant us an #OpenVote — our very own Agent Orange to clear away that which keeps us in darkness, and make way for bright lights shining on our human faces, forever.

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11 thoughts on “Abolish Secret Ballots

  1. The basic question ignored here is who would be made more powerful by an open vote policy. That’s what accountability does: it grants power to others.

    And the obvious people who would be made more powerful are not communities or neighbors or friends, but large employers. Imagine if Walmart, with 1.5 million employers, or Amazon, with 1.3 million employees, was able to threaten employees who voted against government policy. Imagine if governments could look at your voting records and make hiring, firing, and promotion decisions for partisan reasons. The US government employs roughly 3 million: state and local governments about 8 times more.

    Secret votes are a cure for a much more serious problem of corruption than voter unaccountability. They protect INDIVIDUALS from persecution by governments, corporations, and bosses.

    By not openly discussing this and ignoring this tradeoff, this article does us all a disservice.


      1. D’oh!

        The problem is that this is no crazier than much of the right-wing stuff. But I didn’t do due dilligence. 😦


      2. I did interpret it that way- was pretty sure by about a third of the way through- but that was because it was on *your* blog. Mindspace is deep and wide, and I’m quite confident it contains people who think this way. But I have a pretty specific model of you, and it doesn’t include hosting stuff like this without asking any of the obvious critical questions.


        1. Right, I did use the kind of argumentation I would be used for something like this, no point to satire unless you’re making some kind of real point, right?


  2. Anonymous voting also prevents vote-buying. Once someone else can see how you voted, they can promise you a reward for voting the way you want. If you want our democracy to be even more of an auction than it already is, this is how to do it.


  3. I’m guessing this is an April fools joke. But still reminds me of some related things.

    It’s getting easier and easier for data science methods to predict things about people who use the internet. I think that includes predicting who they will vote for. Though, for example, if you bribe someone to change their vote, you still can’t check if they did.

    And some things you mention are very much the same as the pros and cons of “my” proposed Trust Aggregation system (which also seems almost technologically inevitable). In fact, I even recall believing it was somehow a better form of democracy…but I probably thought data privacy would be part of that.


    Liked by 1 person

  4. I halfway expected that the phrase “the tyranny of structurelessness” will show up with a positive connotation. All hail our new, manic and/or borderline elites!

    Liked by 1 person

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