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The secret of the box

Updated Monday 12th May 2008

Is the trend away from the traditional ballot box a threat to British democracy?

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The 2008 local elections prompted me to reflect on the meaning of the ballot box. When I went to vote last week, a tarnished and rather battered box lay humbly on a chair: how, I thought, could this humble object be both fount and symbol of British democracy? And if it is under threat, which it appears to be, in particular from postal voting, does this subtly change the latent understandings of what our democracy is?

By ‘latent’ I am emphasising a psychological approach to ideas. Namely, the idea of democracy like any idea, has some underlying meanings, which are perhaps not often very explicit or conscious.

On 28th April, the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust published a damning report into called Purity of Elections in the UK: Causes for Concern. It shows how the mechanics of UK elections have been tampered with to the extent that the UK now has the lowest public confidence in free and fair elections in Western Europe.

Voters can now obtain a postal vote by simply requesting one, whereas they used to have to demonstrate they needed one because they would be away from home, or because of work commitments preventing attendance in person. Now, instances of poll rigging are not rare; the Rowntree report refers to 42 convictions for electoral fraud in the last 7 years.

Postal voting instructions Creative commons image Icon incurable_hippy under CC-BY-NC licence under Creative-Commons license

Rowntree is not alone in its criticism; the Council of Europe, the Electoral Commission and the Electoral Reform Society have all highlighted serious defects. The clearest way to clean up the system is individual registration. But crosses on postal votes for a whole household can easily be made fraudulently by the nominated householder.

So the danger of postal voting is that individual voters are denied their vote. The Rowntree report says that cheating is not exclusive to any one party or group, but that in the cases of some groups, extended family and kinship networks are mobilised to secure support for particular candidates, and patriarchs and ‘community leaders’ find it all too easy to collect the votes of weaker members of their group. Only 46 per cent of British Asians regard postal voting as safe, according to the report.

When there was a parallel concern in sectarian Northern Ireland, postal votes were limited to those who could prove genuine inability to get to a polling booth; and each voter registers individually. But, the government says that postal voting is ‘more convenient’.

So, what is the meaning of voting and what part does the ballot box as a technology of democracy play? As Tony Benn has often said, election day is a great day because only then is every one of us equal in power.

You can vote or spoil your paper in privacy. Your vote counts no more and no less than anybody else’s. The Universal Declaration on Human Rights stipulates ‘universal and equal suffrage, held by secret vote guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the elector’.

A vote concerns the expression of views on a collective state of affairs and so it follows that these must be collectively addressed. Elections are a modern version for the meeting place in which citizens gathered to decide the issues of the day. In a world of large populations, citizens can no longer gather together in one place, so they elect proxies – representatives – whose legal standing depends on virtual gatherings: periodic collections of votes by the non-present body of citizens.

From painted balls in the clay jars of antiquity to the glass, wooden, and then metal boxes of more recent centuries, voting systems have always signified a self evident simplicity and directness. A real, physical piece of paper, the ballot, is dropped into the box. So long as you know your own vote will both be counted and count towards the final outcome of the election, the system is legitimate.

The psychoanalyst D.W.Winnicott wrote perceptively some decades ago about democracy, saying that it can be defined as society well adjusted to its healthy individual members. That is, it assumes maturity for its members; but I’d turn this around to say that the very act of voting in a public space is what helps to create maturity.

What are the accepted qualities of democratic machinery? he asked. In his view its essence is the free vote by secret ballot. This ensures the freedom of the people to express deep and private feelings, to vote someone in or to vote someone out. The secret ballot provides a space for individuals to take full responsibility for themselves.

One final thing occurred to me when I went to vote: the act of going to a place to vote brings one into an encounter, however brief and perfunctory, with one’s fellow citizens as citizens.

The latent meaning of the ballot box is that it makes people gather, however temporarily. Thus it both symbolically and actually constitutes the very idea of a link between how individual people vote (a vote) and the aggregate (the vote). A vote is a gathering. But postal votes are surely part and parcel of the mantra of consumer choice in which the conception of public, shared space where all are equal is unimportant.

 

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