This week (7th February) has an anniversary that will pass most people by. On that day in 1856 the secret ballot was legislated for parliamentary elections in the British colony of Tasmania. In the same year, secret ballots were also mandated for parliamentary elections in the neighbouring British colonies of Victoria (19th March 1856) and South Australia (2 April 1856).
Secret ballot? I know, very exciting. I knew you would be pumped.
Secret ballots were not a new invention when the colonial legislators mandated them in Tasmania. The ancient Greeks made some use of them. However, it was the French Revolution (with the Constitution of 1795) that brought them into modern political usage. Yet, secret ballots didn’t take off immediately. They were probably just a little too radical for even the most liberal of democratic reformers in the 18th and early 19th Centuries. It took until the Dutch in 1849 to get the ball rolling. After its introduction in three of the Australian colonies in 1856, secret ballots slowly made their way into electoral systems in Italy and Ecuador (1861), Sweden (1866), New Zealand (1870), UK (1872), Canada (1874), Belgium (1877), Norway (1885) and the United States (in 1888, with secret ballots conducted in city elections in Louisville, Kentucky; and in state elections in Massachusetts).
Why are secret ballots important? Think about it. In an election where emotions might be running high. In an election where your neighbour is a rabid supporter of the other side. In an election where someone with a gun is hanging around the polling booth… You get the idea. Before secret ballots, voters had to tell the voting place staff for whom that they wish to vote – to say (out loud) that they wanted to cast a vote for Candidate A or Candidate B. It is much better to scratch a mark on a ballot paper next to a candidate’s name without some interested party looking over your shoulder, and reaching over to guide your hand…
If you live in a modern liberal democracy, you will typically take elections for granted. And everything that goes with elections – electioneering, ballot papers, secret ballots, election scrutineers, the expectation of personal safety at the polling booth. You might think elections to be a little, well, ho hum. But every time you cast your vote, and run the gauntlet of candidates and their election supporters on the way to the polling place, remember that that it was not many generations ago that popular elections were regarded as just too radical. Ordinary people? Voting? Heaven forbid. What will they want next? Old age pensions, universal education, universal suffrage, universal health care, clean air, urban sanitation… No, wait. Popular elections have been followed by all these things in most liberal democracies in the 20th and 21st Centuries.
So on 7th February, pause for a moment to reflect on how your society would be different without secret ballots.
Photo Copyright Details:
|Title: A Roman man voting in one of the assemblies
Description: Image of a Roman man voting in one of the assemblies, as depicted on a Roman coin (Denarius)
Source: Wikipedia Commons
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