BIPP Insights

BIPP student intern Anthony Maisano ’21 looks at how Australia was at the forefront of secret voting and questions whether current conditions may prompt the need for another type of ballot reform.

The Australian (secret) ballot revolutionized voting in the late nineteenth century but what looms next in the digital age?

Prior to the late nineteenth century, elections were full of corruption. Parties were responsible for handing out ballots and countless votes were being bought, or forced. Without a standardized ballot, parties only added their own candidates to their ballot, often causing voters to not have the option to vote across party lines. Moreover, the lack of secrecy in elections discouraged voters from voting in favor of their beliefs for fear of retribution. Amidst the ever-growing divisiveness in late nineteenth century American politics, the secrecy of voting became of greater concern to Americans, which spurred the adoption of the Australian (Secret) ballot (King 2016).

The Australian ballot works to ensure a stronger democracy, by crafting a standardized ballot that is printed by the local government at the public’s expense. This concept provided voters a way to vote in secret, without fears of party repercussions. Continually, these ballots were limited to being distributed on election day and were handed in directly by voters to ensure privacy. Moreover, through the standardization of the Australian ballot, all candidates running for office, no matter their party, were listed on each ballot, to allow for voter choice.

It is hard to imagine a world without a voting process through the Australian ballot. We often take for granted the freedom, safety, and confidentiality placed in our voting process, yet, the effects of the Australian ballot can be felt in modern day practice. Alan Ware investigated how the success of the Australian ballot altered the process in which candidates were being nominated. Ware theorized that the Australian ballot provided a platform and expectation for political nomination reform, which in result led to the direct primary. Ware maintained a unique argument in that he sees parties as being rational. He expressed that amidst the successful ballot reform, parties sought to maintain a solid interest in elections by furthering their growth and trying to reform with the elections to help sculpt our modern electoral process (Ware 2002). This means that the implementation of the Australian ballot helped spur modern day electoral policies through providing the cause to begin the direct primary, as well as fostered greater party strength and cohesion.

However, it is interesting to see how we are in the midst of a type of ballot reform. With the rise of technology and electronic voting, it begs the question as to whether or not voting is actually a secret or is representative of actual opinion? With the increase in fake news, data scandals, and the inefficiency of auditing black box ballot machines, voters are more susceptible to the forms of coercion which prompted the adoption of the Australian ballot. In their book, Alvarez and Hall investigate the pitfalls of technology on electronic voting. Alvarez and Hall convey that electronic voting has provided a system that lacks the capacity to be audited, which forces voters to realize that their vote is up to the functioning of a black box. Continually, Alvarez and Hall discuss the possibility of hackers influencing ballots not just through the polls, but also through an influx in fake social media accounts and fake news, like the Facebook scandal (Alvarez and Hall 2008). Furthermore, many voters lie about their voting history (Harbaugh 1994)  which could create a cascading effect of citizens altering voting preferences based on fake stories. While the Australian ballot provided a great reform in the nineteenth century, it seems as though we must reevaluate the conditions of our voting. Our voting process may be too susceptible to risk that citizens may need to be accountable for their choices and votes. On the contrary, by forcing people to be accountable for their votes, we would directly go against an election norm.

Ultimately, we seem to be at a similar point in time as before the Australian ballot. However, now, our parties appear to be weaker than before. Nonetheless, could another major ballot reform, which would alter the risk of technology, change the fundamental party system? Could a new ballot give rise to future party reform to strengthen weakening parties, like the Australian ballot did, or would it lead to their demise?

Sources of Information:

Alvarez, R. Michael, and Thad E. Hall. 2010. Electronic Elections: the Perils and Promises of Digital Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Chapter 3

Harbaugh, W. T. 1996. “If People Vote Because They like to, Then Why Do so Many of Them Lie?” Public Choice89(1-2): 63–76.

Heckelman, Jac C. 1995. “The Effect of the Secret Ballot on Voter Turnout Rates.” Public Choice82(1-2): 107–24.

Ware, Alan. 2009. The American Direct Primary: Party Institutionalization and Transformation in the North. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wittrock, Jill N. et al. 2007. “The Impact of the Australian Ballot on Member Behavior in the U.S. House of Representatives.” Political Research Quarterly61(3): 434–44.

*The Bucknell Institute for Public Policy (BIPP) is a nonpartisan institute. Guest writers’ views on public policy are not endorsed by the Institute.

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