Semi-Secret Ballot in Parliament (Also known as 'Delayed Honesty' or 'The Judgement Day System' -- A

Suggestion for Parliamentary Voting Reform, by delayed disclosure of individual votes, for temporary secrecy, but eventual accountability. First published on 2010, Katherine Katz)


This is a controlled reform by the gradual introduction of a minimal change in parliamentary voting. It involves a two-pronged initiation of (1) some non-binding fully secret ballots, and (2) the delayed publication of the back-bencher votes in the binding final ballots. The combination of these two compromise systems, both intermediate between fully secret and immediately open ballot, aims to diminish the strangle-hold of party-politics on parliamentary debating and voting patterns, by redistributing some power from the cabinet to the back-bench. It avoids the instability of proportional representation, yet promises far-reaching knock-on effects. It is cheap, and ought to save much money normally wasted on parliamentary party rhetoric. There is little excuse why it should not be trialled as a partial implementation.

Why is reform needed?

People are disillusioned: with poor parliamentary behaviour, with political rhetoric chewing up expensive parliamentary debate time, with strict party politics, policy determination by the few, balance of power situations, factionalism, poor parliamentary attendance by members, and a host of other annoying features of our legislative system. Many of these oddities of our system are rightly seen as thwarting democracy. With sham democracies multiplying, it is up to true democracies to take the lead and demonstrate truly democratic practices to the world, as a matter of principle, not out of expedience. The aim is to make parliament transparently worthy of respect, without recklessly swapping to proportional representation or any other quite different system. Electoral reform is left aside, and parliamentary reform is centre-stage. Parliamentary voting is where the rubber hits the road, so voting reform is the key to fundamental change. The immediate target is excessive 2-party politicking and oneparty dominance. The essence of democracy is not, after all, to democratically elect an autocratic governing party.

How does 'half-secret' maintain full ministerial and other public accountability?
'Semi-secret' ballot works by delaying publication of how each back-bencher and non-government member voted. Ministers and office holders (parliamentary secretaries, Speaker) must still vote openly on all important legislation. Only their votes and the overall result is initially known.

'Semi-secret' means that public accountability is preserved, but back-benchers are given an opportunity to register conscientious objection to 'the party line', through a temporary respite from party bullying. • • The 'delayed publication' of individuals' votes might be scheduled for ~When a fresh election is called -- This is the option most in spirit with the aims. ~When the prime minister and cabinet is dismissed and a new leader chosen ~6 or 12 months after each vote -- This has a much lesser impact on voting patterns. It is not recommended that disclosure be forced simply by any minor reshuffle or new appointment, because that could be abused, and takes away the certainty of a known period of grace and safety. Two other options for delayed disclosure are ~Extended semi-secrecy -- extended to the end of that parliament if the government bill is passed ~Optional secrecy -- never disclosed, if the selected government bill is passed. Optional secrecy should not be allowed in other cases, as it is open to abuse e.g. in order to avoid public accountability. Optional secrecy or extended semi-secrecy encourage backbenchers to break party discipline, on the gamble that it won't much hurt them.

Full or partial implementation?

If fully implemented, every vote would be a combination of a non-binding secret ballot followed by a binding semi-secret ballot, and it should apply to any institution which claims to be accountable, representative and democratic. For partial implementation, the optimum version is a combination of a preliminary non-binding secret ballot, and a final binding 'semi-secret' ballot. • The bill goes to its final debate with the results of a preliminary secret ballot already known, and is then further debated, amended and voted on, by a ballot which remains secret, as far as non-minister voting is concerned, for some stated delay. • A second non-binding secret ballot, could be held just prior to the final vote, for the benefit of the upper house. • The bill then goes to the upper house, and the semi-secret process is repeated. For trial purposes, the system could be used, initially, only in the upper house. This suits the traditional purposes of the second house, to represent local interests above party politics, and to debate, scrutinise, review and reject bad legislation. However, since most abuse of party politics occurs in the lower house, it rather defeats the spirit of the system to quarantine it from the target arena.

Why include any fully secret ballots at all, or why not simply use semi-secret ballot only?

Binding secret ballot by itself is untrustworthy, and would be a revolutionary, unpredictable and undesirable change, open to abuse. It allows no public accountability. Yet only secret ballot is recognised as truly democratic and representative. Non-binding secret ballot is a suitable compromise, but being nonbinding, cannot work by itself alone.

Non-binding secret ballot is not the essence of the semi-secret system, but works well in conjunction with it. The preliminary non-binding secret ballot applies moral pressure against bad legislation, and for needed amendments. It exposes party-discipline for its level of coercion. It exposes insincere opposition to good law. It encourages back-benchers to unite, by giving them a good idea of how the numbers stand, during the progress of the debate. As a reform in itself non-binding secret-ballot is a powerful tool to exert pressure, but powerless to directly alter final results.

The other compromise system is to be half-secret. The eventual publication of final voting acts as a damper on any tendency to extreme departures from the present voting behaviour. Yet there is little incentive to change voting patterns away from party-dominated policy-determinations unless there is some extra knowedge of how others would vote if encouraged.

The final and binding semi-secret ballot empowers direct input in legislation formation. It empowers motions of censure and no-confidence, to the point that a minister or government can be voted down or out. It empowers conscience voting, even when there is no official party-room permission for a conscience vote. A list of other probable effects is given below. As a reform in itself it is a powerful tool to de-power party dominance, but it is given extra power, especially in normal bills before the house, by the encouragement of knowing what the secret ballot shows.

The two compromise systems (non-binding or not fully secret) can work together, one with the benefits of secret polling, the other with the benefits of remaining accountable. Only the combination can safely achieve the best of both worlds. The combination of non-binding secret ballot, say, after the first debate, and semi-secret final ballot is more powerful than either alone, in re-empowering back-benchers. The combination should be popular, in the public eye, because it serves justice, and improves a known system, and in the eyes of all members of parliament except the party leadership, because it redistributes power.

Minimal Change
This is a 'minimal initial change' reform, yet significant in its impact.

Most, perhaps all, structures and procedures can be retained, and will remain in the long-term also.

It should not require constitutional change, to add a non-binding vote, but a formal change is more likely to be needed if a minimum quota is attached to the vote. It is more probable that constitutional amendment is needed to change the way a binding parliamentary vote is cast, counted or disclosed to the public. It depends on the constitution involved. A physical facility for secret ballot is required, plus a facility for semisecret ballot casting -- a system of recording individual votes for later disclosure (see Appendix below). A non-binding secret vote would be introduced, say after the first round of debate, and immediately before the final vote. Members' attendance in the house is expedient for the preliminary secret vote, because it is recommended that filling a 25% quota of 'yes' votes is necessary to proceed with any new bill. Any less and it is obvious that the government is not commanding a majority even of its own members.

Gradual and Controlled Reform
Gradual evolution to an acceptable level of semi-secret voting. • For instance, a small but relentlesssly increasing percentage of bills and/or amendments could be slated down for some form of binding or non-binding secret or semi-secret ballot. Bills could be selected, for example, on a basis of 'every fourth this year, then every third next year', and leave it to the governing party to schedule bills appropriately. Or a random selection of suitable bills could select a stated proportion. Or a secret ballot could establish whether or not to have the semisecret process applied, or could establish modified odds to be applied to selection by random number. Budget Money-Supply bills might be exempt. Issues which have been the subject of referenda, dissolved parliament or prominent election promises might be exempt. The system of extra and different ballots is introduced gradually so that all can get a feel for how it works. Its further progress would be based upon its track record, popularity and acceptability. (The decision on further implementation should be scheduled for each new parliament, and removed from the control of the leadership, e.g. by secret ballot, concerning pre-stated levels of application.) Such an opportunity for controlled reform is difficult to come across.

Partial Introduction
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The range of minimal impact options available for gradual incorporation are... making the new ballot fully secret or optionally secret or semi-secret. binding or non-binding. publishing after a short or long or extended delay. using it on preliminary or final votes, and on amendments or not. applied to non-ministers or office-holders or ministers. for chosen bills only. for few or many such bills.

upper or lower house.

The aim is to remove any excuses as to why the new system should not be trialed in part. An election based on the need for parliamentary reform is about the best time to promise to introduce a trial of the combined system in some form.

The effects of the system

This is a wish-list-come-ignorant-predictions-forecast, open to debate and addition. But the idea overall is that the reform is fundamental and far-reaching against the worst aspects of our current 2-party dominated system. Yet any changes are restrained compared with a secret ballot system.

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Dominant 2-party politics gradually gives way to a much looser system, more representative of individual electorates. Party discipline, also known as coercion and bullying, is weakened. Aspiring cabinet ministers do have incentive to toe the party line, but back-benchers become a force to be reckoned with, rather than to be taken for granted. Independents and minorities are empowered and should increase. Real debate supplants political rhetoric, because it aims at persuading backbenchers and cross-benchers, based on the merits of the legislation, not on which party is proposing it. Parliamentary costs are not wasted on predictable, repetitive party rhetoric. Less sitting time is needed and/or sitting time is more cost-effective and efficient. Cabinet-room policy-making is made less autocratic. More whole party room meetings would be expedient. More non-government bills would get further. Balance of power situations are eliminated, resulting in fewer deadlocked parliaments. More triggers for early elections, but probably fewer would be taken up -since the election focus is less about party success, mandate or opposition obstruction tactics and more about the government's failure to persuade even its own members. Less threats of joint-sitting and double-dissolution. The genuine opposition causing inability to pass bills is likely to replicate itself in joint sittings, and in election results to follow. Less threats of early election. More full-term parliaments. The focus of parliament becomes more about doing their job of legislating, and early quitting would attract criticism. More multi-issue elections, and less claiming of 'public mandate' based on single-issue elections. Elections at the moment are engineered around a populist angle to swing the election, which disenfranchises the public on all other issues. With the focus on ministerial and legislative success on a bill by bill basis, the spotlight falls more on the cabinet makeup and policy initiatives, not on failure to persuade the house on a specific issue.

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Pre-selection will be delayed until vote-discovery, i.e. until an election is called. Since pre-selection of approved candidates is a way around equal opportunity for election to parliament (e.g. in Iran; Communism), this fundamentally undemocratic procedure needs curbing. Weakening party politics empowers representative candidates, independents and minor parties.

There are some of the characteristics of proportional representation, but not to the same extent. • Less factionalism and more appointments on merit. • More cross-party cabinets -- government of national unity. • Less distinction between mainline parties. The current system forces polarisation, for election purposes. The new system dampens it. • A wider range of representative minor parties, less tied to the centre. Factions simply spit off. • More coalitions would be neeed to secure the numbers. • Minority government is more workable -- the need for a coalition for a majority on paper is lessened.

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Less ideologically-driven legislation. Less bad legislation. No longer can legislation be 'rammed through' so easily. Adequate debate and back-bench support is ensured. Less pork-barrelling, since members left out of perks are more likely to register their moral or selfish objection to favouritism. Perhaps there will be an increase of lower-level more evenly-distributed vote-buying. Less united opposition to good legislation. This disempowers the nongovernment block somewhat, to function as an effective 'opposition', but many would see that as a welcome reform. Other gains offset this disadvantage, such as more opposition to bad laws. Increased parliamentary attendance. Early votes require a minimum number of yes votes. Uncertainty in the ongoing outcomes is often increased, and the debates are more worth listening to. Individual members value their vote more. Rebel voters need to be sure of their ground by listening carefully to the debate, to be able to justify themselves later. Absentee 'pairs' are eliminated. Less chance of major reforms succeeding, without dilution by many amendments. This is a weakness. More local issues and self-interest come to the fore. Members are more likely to express their private opinions in the secret ballot, yet express their public opinions in the public ballot. They are elected to represent a range of opinions in their electorate, yet also elected to abide by their personal ethics and opinions and beliefs as epressed to the electorate. If party political ethics are to be diminished, there will be a heightened expectation for members to be elected for their personal profile, and so to vote according to their professed character. Eventually there should be a smaller gap between private and public opinions, and a larger range of opinions. Voting margins are likely to increase, based on merit of the legislation, with

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some normalisation of balance after amendments are included.

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Unpopular ministers, laws and governments can be voted down more easily. This may be described as 'increased instability', but is more of the nature of evolution to 'increased accountability'. There is less need for spills, since the system is achieving reform in a more measured way. The instability might be expressed more as internal cabinet reform, than in public elections. More censure motions put and succeeding -- less likely to be 'voted down along party lines'. More no-confidence motions put and succeeding. More conscience votes allowed. The procedure for semi-secrecy is already in place as an option to be used. Conscience votes, if made fully secret, would result in less 'political correctness' and more private opinion being allowed to count. A different set of pressures operates on the leaders. Loyalty issues increase. Appointments on perceived merit are in focus. The job description is more about cross-party coordination and party-administration duties. Personalities that can command cross-party respect and cooperation ought to emerge, somewhat allowing more visionary reform agendas, to offset the initial difficulties of getting anyone to agree to anything. Backbenchers would need to think for themselves far more clearly, as they consider how to vote. Less media spectacle, and less pitching speeches to the media. 'Parliamentary performance' would be gauged by competence, not by mediafriendly audio-visual grabs. Less personality politics. Less dog-fights in parliament. Less big-spending party-driven advertising campaigns, American-style. Better parliamentary behaviour. More public respect for politicians and politics. More respect for parliamentary politics as a career-choice, it being seen as a service to the public. There is increased focus on long-term honesty and on loyalty and independence. This should alter the moral landscape. Having to explain yourself years later ensures a longer lasting commitment to each issue. More respect for parliamentary procedure, and parliamentary debate. The public will vote less along party lines, more for candidates promising independent and representative policy. Voting apathy and ignorance should decrease. However, many would feel that they no longer know what an individual candidate stands for, if party policy plays less of a role. More public interest in voting patterns of individual candidates and members. This partially offsets the delay in public scrutiny. The public sees their votes as counting more. They would recognise someone willing to vote against the party as good to vote for.

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The public would see their local member as more likely to achieve a change. They would approach that member more readily. On the down side: Lobby groups have more scope for corrupt vote buying -- the secrecy initially hides a corrupt vote, but the eventual publication allows the vote to be verified by the buyer. The time delay takes many issues away from the public interest. Party factions may take the opportunity under cover of fully secret ballots to vexatiously embarrass a minister from the opposing faction. Less smear-tactics, less dirty tactics, fewer death-threats. These thrive where the future outcome can be altered. The delay protects politicians from prevoting intimidation.

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Semi-Secret Ballot Equipment and Procedure This is simply a detail to be implemented. Examples are offered below, but many variations are possible. The physical procedure, as a model for the electonic equivalent, can be envisaged as this: A scutineer identifies a member, and hands them an unsealed envelope with their name inside. The name is verified and the envelope is sealed under scrutiny. Then the vote is written on the outside. A random checkword is written alongside. The vote lodged in a ballot box. After voting, the envelopes are displayed for counting and verification -- each voter can recognise their own paper from the checkword. Much later the envelopes are opened and the names discovered. To thwart vote-wrecking, really important votes can be done in quadruplicate, for distribution. The equivalent electronic procedure needs to be transparent in both procedure and implementation (e.g. every wire is fully visible) and secure (by means of privatepublic key encryption). One example is: Individual members are allocated individual seats, each with a dedicated electronic terminal for that member only. Each terminal is linked to a hub and then to the central dedicated computer of the clerk of the house. No external connections are allowed. The hub ensures that the central computer cannot identify the source of any electronic packets of information. The terminal uploads the member's name automatically, together with their selected vote and an auto-generated random checkword (e.g. zebra037762339), in 3 packages, automatically encrypted with two public keys, as follows. (1)The whole upload (name+vote+checkword) is encrypted with key#1, and kept in storage for decrypting much later. (2)In addition, the vote and checkword are encrypted for secure transmission purposes with key#2, for decryption by the clerk of the house, immediately after all the votes have been received and shuffled. This information is displayed as 3 lists (Yes; No; Abstain) in alphabetical order of the checkwords. (3)The name is encrypted with key#2, and transmitted separately. This list is also decrypted and displayed for cross-checking purposes, to verify the presence of the

member in the house. For fully secret votes, (1) and (3) are disabled. That could be controlled from the clerk's desk, e.g. suppying power to one or both functions, according to the vote. The private key#1 needs to be automatically internally encrypted upon generation, by three public keys in succession, belonging to three independent parties (e.g. leaders of government, opposition and minor parties) and these keys are kept in safe but known and emergency-accessible places. Later they come together to decrypt the private key#1, which allows decryption of the voting patterns. To counteract vote-wrecking and vexatious objections ('My vote is not there!'), triplicate transmissions can be used, and consulted in cases of contention. These can be verified while they are still encrypted.

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