Saving democracy: one secret ballot at a time

From Encyclopaedia Brittanica: “Australian ballot: Voters participating in the secret ballot, or Australian ballot, system in the British general elections of April 17, 1880. Hulton Archive


Though I have a deep interest in and faith in sortition as “the other way of representing the people”, my own view of a good system and of the path of activism to get there is protean, eclectic and pragmatic. I wrote this Crikey! column in that spirit. It makes a passing reference to sortition, but is focused on another very simple and critical building block of our democracies as they’re currently constituted – the choice between where voting should be by public and open ballot and where the ballot should be secret. The basic principles seem obvious – secret ballots for citizen’s votes and public voting for their representatives. But some artful exceptions could make a big difference to our current travails.


As an Irish parliamentarian, Edmund Burke once said that he owed his constituents not just his industry but his judgment, and that if he voted according to their opinions rather than his own judgment he would betray rather than serve them.

This failure to flatter his audience helps explain why he’s better remembered today as a philosopher than as a practitioner of politics. But the distinction he made gives us a key to mending our democracy.

Today, when push comes to shove, politicians’ allegiance is neither to their judgment nor their constituents’ opinion, but to their party. (It is worth noting that political parties were in their infancy in Burke’s time.)

It is not uncommon for legislative chambers around the world to have voted against the judgment of the overwhelming majority of their members and even against the people’s wishes — all at the behest of party bosses.

In this category I’d include numerous votes of the UK parliament regarding Brexit and various decisions of US congressmen and women culminating in the failure to find Donald Trump guilty during his recent impeachment trial — despite Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell describing then-president Trump’s conduct as a “disgraceful dereliction of duty”.

That conduct moved Trump’s political opponents to some genuine eloquence rather than the usual play-acting. As Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer put it:

Five years ago, Republican senators lamented what might become of their party if Donald Trump became their presidential nominee and standard-bearer. Just look at what has happened. Look at what Republicans have been forced to defend. Look at what Republicans have chosen to forgive. The former president tried to overturn the results of a legitimate election and provoked an assault on our own government, and well over half the Senate Republican conference decided to condone it. The most despicable act that any president has ever committed, and the majority of Republicans cannot summon the courage, the morality, to condemn it.

But in some respects Australia was a leader in this dismal story. In 2013 our parliament abolished carbon pricing. In addition to those in the Labor and Greens parties who suffered minimal tension between their consciences and their party lines, a hefty proportion of Liberal MPs voted against their better judgment. It stopped serious progress on carbon emissions, costs the budget more than $10 billion a year, and will surely be slowly reversed.

This degree of dysfunction is something we should ponder deeply. But we can start doing that while we act — with a practice which goes back to our roots: in the 19th century, Australia led the world in adopting secret ballots.

The legislators voting against their better judgment in 2013 in Australia, in the UK regarding Brexit, and in the US in both of Trump’s impeachment trials, did so because the alternative was career ruin. A secret ballot of the relevant chambers would have constrained the power of their parties and so protected the public interest.

Of course legislators should be accountable for their votes so their votes should be public. But there are reasonable exceptions. Thus, for instance, in Australia the election of presiding officers of both houses is held by secret ballot. This expedient aligns parliamentary procedure with the wisdom of Burke’s maxim to value MPs’ judgment first and foremost.

And if you accept that choosing the speaker of the House and the president of the Senate is MPs’ own business — not directly that of their constituents — it does no harm to the wider objective of accountability.

We could use similar expedients to erect additional checks and balances against party discipline dominating the judgment of elected representatives.

I’ve previously argued that a standing citizens’ assembly chosen, as juries are, by lot from the people could be given the power to raise the stakes for parties seeking to corral their representatives into disregarding their own judgment.

So where a chamber of the legislature voted against the considered opinion of the people — as represented by a substantial majority of the citizens’ assembly — that assembly could require the chamber to vote again, this time by secret ballot.

Had we had such a system in 2013, Australia would not have stumbled into the disastrous climate change policy it has today and, as I’ve argued, Britain would be navigating its numerous and ongoing Brexit dilemmas more conscientiously.

Meanwhile, in the US, the Senate might have structured its verdict on the 45th president as a procedural vote followed by a substantive vote. The first procedural vote would be by open ballot, and would determine by a simple majority whether the substantive vote should be by open or secret ballot.

I think a majority would have voted for a secret ballot and, having loosed the vice-like grip of party discipline, would have struck a blow for true accountability rather than its tawdry simulacrum.

Nicholas Gruen is CEO of Lateral Economics. He’s an economist, a consultant, a commentator and a former adviser to the federal government.

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3 years ago

The perennial whine of the left: the mass of people is too stupid to trust with a vote on anything that matters. Democracy, then, is not a useful way of governing as it stands fair-square in the way of those who wish power because they are just so much smarter.

1) CO2 is not a pollutant. The “carbon tax” was simply one more double-cross in a long line and so deserved to be buried: it wasn ‘t even named with any honesty. If one insists on “carbon” pollution, it is clear they do not know the difference between a solid and a gas, or an element and a compound. Or perhaps such people simply do not care about that accuracy. After all, carbon is a black, dirty solid, while CO2 is a colourless, odorless gas that we all generate through our metabolism 24/7 and which photosynthesis requires to work at all – which is the easier negative to sell ?

2) NG’s view in line with Edmund Burke’s that the masses may elect someone to a Parliament but that elected person can then double-cross the electors at will requires a politicised police force and in the end game, a politicised army. Except that’s been tried so often now …

Antonios Sarhanis
Antonios Sarhanis
3 years ago

Unsure how this could work in representative democracies. When you don’t know what your representative is actually voting for, you’ve got a major problem.

Also the assumption that a secret ballot would produce the optimal outcome that accords with the wisest course is highly questionable.

For instance, I’m pro-Brexit on leftist grounds. I still consider Britain leaving the EU the wisest course of action.

Antonios Sarhanis
3 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

But you only cite what you consider bad decisions in your article. The implication is that this extra conscientiousness will produce decisions that you favour.

You should want to favour this proposal even if it produces a terrible decision, one that you abhor, because the system overall is better.

And I’m not convinced that a secret ballot in any circumstance would make for better outcomes. The worst MPs in parliament can do far more damage than the best can do good, so some kind of party line that a nation can feel they voted for seems more important. And MPs are a suspicious, backstabby lot anyway — adding secret ballots to the mix seems a very poisonous addition.

3 years ago

As a thought experiment, I tried to think of issues with the secret ballot that wouldn’t lead to the best outcomes — or at least outcomes most people take for granted these days. For example, it seems to me that religious people are seriously over represented in parliament, and many of their entrenched views the public moved on from years before parliament did or still has not done (gay marriage, abortion, drug reform, etc.). These issues presumably would be exceptional as people often suggest conscience votes for them. Secret ballots would allow these opinions which deviate significantly from what the public wants to be entrenched for much longer. At least with open ballots we know who to blame and vote out.

3 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

I don’t see why a citizen’s chamber wouldn’t come to the conclusion that, for things that people think have an especially moral aspect, having parliamentarians vote might be a good idea. Alternatively, if they are told that all they are to do is vote on the issue and after that things can go on, then that’s another story, so I guess it depends on the scope you want such councils to have (reading what you said carefully, it appears that the latter of these is what you want — so in this case, it’s only a decision mechanism based on the idea rather than the moral character, so I’m more ok with that). It also depends on the test-retest reliability of your panels. Any idea what that is like in these groups? Is their real evidence to show that their deliberations make them better than a random selection?

3 years ago
Reply to  Conrad

Sure — the first bit is suggesting that you would really need to be careful about why people on these panels are voting one way or the other. If I was sitting on one of these panels, I might be thinking that it is a good idea to send some issue to parliament for a secret vote not because I personally agree with the idea (I may not or I may have no opinion), but because I think it would be good to give parliament a go without individual politicians having to be persecuted too much for their voting behaviour. This would be more democratic for some issues and this seems like a good idea to me. For example, I don’t really know if most parliamentarians think drug reform is a good idea, but it would be good to know either way. So why not send it there? But if people made decisions based on this and not “I think drug reform is or is not a good idea” then you will get problems from it because you might get a majority on your panel based on thoughts like this, not their actual opinion on the issue. So your panel needs to be really clear on how they should decide their vote, and this decision must limited to their actual opinion on the subject matter.

Roj Blake
3 years ago

Sortition is one issue that needs to be, well, sorted out.

Then there is the matter of most votes being whipped votes, that is according to the party line, and a few being “conscience votes” where the member may vote the conscience over and above the party line. We do not elect representatives to vote their conscience, and while we may tolerate them voting the party line when the party line accords with our own, we really need representatives to vote in the best interests of the nation.

The difficulty there is shown by the Amercan Congress where party loyalty is not as fully enforced as here and it is not uncommon for a D to vote with the R’s and vice versa.

We have a long way to go to find the perfect system.


[…] in Club Troppo – Saving democracy: one secret ballot at a time – Nicholas Gruen ponders what the results might have been, had the US Congress been voting in […]