The role of secret ballots of our elected representatives

Voters-secret-ballot-system-Australian-British-elections-April-17-1880

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 save our ailing democracies is protean, eclectic and pragmatic. In that spirit I offer this recent column of mine published in Australia. 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.

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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.

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Lottery for CV-19 Vaccination in Manatee, Florida

I suppose it had to happen!

“Currently, there are about 180,000 people [over 65] signed up in the county’s standby pool [database] with hopes of being vaccinated at the county’s drive-thru at Tom Bennett Park, 400 Cypress Creek Blvd, Bradenton. When COVID-19 vaccine doses become available, people are randomly pulled from that pool and given a shot. The county’s IT director said it’s entirely up to a computer to decide who will get a vaccine and when. “It is fully automated. There is no other information in there, whether race, ethnicity or address,” said Paul Alexander.”

Here’s how the randomisation system works

“The county’s IT director said it’s entirely up to a computer to decide who will get a vaccine and when. “It is fully automated. There is no other information in there, whether race, ethnicity or address,” said Paul Alexander.”…..”When doses become available — which is determined by the weekly allotment granted to the county by the Florida Department of Emergency Management — that database is used to randomly select from the pool who will get a shot.”

More on this at

Manatee County’s COVID-19 vaccine standby pool explained | Bradenton Herald

How sortition points beyond all that sound and fury that signifies nothing

Back in the day, (which is to say for most of the 20th century until things began changing in the 1980s), each of the major political parties had a few percentage points of the population as members. In addition to the intrinsic rewards of being part of one’s country’s social and political fabric, the ultimate point of membership was to influence your party’s political platform and through that to influence government policy.

Correspondingly, mass movements such as the civil rights movement would pare back their platforms to the specific issue they wished to highlight. It took Martin Luther King most of the 1960s to come out against America’s involvement in Vietnam because widening his movements platform was seen to compromise the size of the civil rights coalition. 

Since then politics has famously been ‘hollowed out’. The membership of mainstream political parties has plummeted with those left tending to be careerists, the stooges they attract to stack branches and occasional naïve blow-ins. Political parties still go through some of the motions of members determining policy, but senior party professionals understand themselves as a fighting force which will need to improvise its way through the news cycles through to the next election and that makes member determined policy a potential liability.

And something similar has occurred in mass movements. Their campaigning is increasingly focused on people’s expressive side. And policies are increasingly seen through that lens. Thus Black Lives Matter wants to defund the police or says it does. This is a ridiculous slogan, but one treated with great toleration by our media and commentators. Brexit might mean Brexit, but defund doesn’t really mean defund. It means … well something else – reallocating funds to community building and all that stuff. Likewise, the BLM platform plans to overthrow capitalism and all the rest of it. And it turns out that next to none of the coverage that BLM gets is about its policies. So its policies can be aimed at expression rather than the outcomes that those policies might produce.  

I began writing a post on this back in the days of France’s Yellow Vests. They knew they were pissed off, and, for all I know they were right to be pissed off. They knew they didn’t like certain taxes which they felt targeted them. But what did they like? What policy changes were they after? That was less clear. 

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Global Trends in Democracy: Background, U.S. Policy, and Issues for Congress: A worthwhile reference

Readers of this blog may be interested in this recent exploration (pdf) of global trends in democracy for the US Congress.

A good link on new ideas for ‘democracy’

Apologies if this has appeared before, but there is a very good article from a French site about new ideas for Democracy, including some we would recognise here

http://www.booksandideas.net/Democracy-Bridging-the.html?lang=fr

Criteria for a “good” legislative system?

I’d like to pose a question to everyone in this forum – what are your preferred criteria for a “good” legislative system?

Representation and Children

This is slightly off-topic, but there was a huge discussion earlier on this list on the enfranchisement of children. There’s a new paper out co-authored by Kleroterian Ethan Leib on the topic of representation and children. It’s entitled “Fiduciary Representation and Deliberative Engagement with Children,” it’s appearing in the Journal of Political Philosophy, and it can be found online here–

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9760.2011.00398.x/abstract

Launch of Newid, the Demarchy party for Wales

The best laid schemes of mice and men Go often askew, And leaves us nothing but grief and pain, For promised joy!

It would be fair to say that the launch did not go according to plan. This was largely due to Rhodri Morgan moving his farewell press conference to the same time as ours. But the Tories ran a spoiler where the only AM from an ethnic minority, Mohammed Asghar, suddenly switched to the Tories without a moment’s hesitation despite having been elected on the Plaid list.

So, in summary, we were totally drowned out of the news media but a few of us did meet and I ended up on the BBC Radio Wales lunchtime phone-in where they let me talk about demarchy for an hour. As a result, we now have people wanting to be candidates in the Cynon Valley and in Meirionnydd despite me forgetting to mention the website address. Every cloud and all that!

You can hear the coverage at this link until next Tuesday: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00p4z2s/The_Radio_Wales_PhoneIn_08_12_2009/

We live and learn. I will not try a frontal assault next time.

All the best,

Martin