Essay – The Secret Ballot

June 22, 2019

Matt O’Brien

Graduate, Politics and International Relations, University of Bristol


Secrecy is a multifaceted, multi-layered concept, and is often very hard to pin down. Much of the existing academic literature on secrecy focusses on secrecy at the state level; with secrets concerning national security, and very little considers the concept of political secrecy at the individual level (Holt, 1995; Brunea & Dombrowski, 2006). Whereas “the richest literature on secrecy is to be found in the study of (national) security intelligence,” the aim of this secret object analysis is to broaden the understanding of secrecy by analysing the secret ballot, bridging the existing gap between the state and the individual, the elite and the ordinary (Rittberger & Goetz, 2018:828). Firstly, the analysis will consider the hierarchy of secrecy involved in the secret ballot before moving to examine how the act of secret voting is an act of self-secreting before finally turning to the spatial aspect of secrecy.


Primarily, the current literature on secrecy fails to sufficiently discuss the multi-levelled nature of secrecy, often displaying a preoccupation with transparency in public policy and administration (Meijer, 2014). Thus, secrecy shall here be broken down to its lowest level: the individual citizen. In the context of the secret ballot, secrecy is institutionalised to provide a protection; as Dunn posited, “secrecy can be used to combat coercion” (Dunn, 2005:9). Indeed, the freedom from coercion was a central argument to the passing of the 1872 Secret Ballot Act in the United Kingdom. Bok’s conventional definition of secrecy as “intentional concealment” becomes problematic insofar as the individual is not intentionally concealing their choice at the polling booth, instead it is the physical space around them and the stigma attached to electoral law that conceals their ‘secret’ (Bok, 1983). Whereas distinctions are drawn between “omission” and “commission” (omission being withholding information and commission as active deception), it is suggested that a secret only comes into existence in the presence of an outsider (not in knowledge of the secret) (Slepian, et al., 2017:1; Kelly, 2002). Such a conclusion again proves problematic because, often the hiding of information during social interactions is not necessarily a feature unique to secrecy; individuals may “inhibit aspects of speech… for a myriad of reasons… none of which require an explicit intention to conceal” (Slepian, et al., 2017:2). This could simply mean avoiding discussing who we voted for after having cast our ballots, not because we necessarily want to keep it secret, but because we feel impolite asking explicitly. Instead, the secrecy is established and maintained by the state; a blanket of secrecy is applied so as to provide protection to the individuals and the fairness of the elections. Perkins and Dodge suggest too simplistic a definition neglects the context of the secret, drawing distinctions between the intimacy of personal secrets and how a government secret “focuses attention to a much greater degree on national hegemonic power” (Perkins & Dodge, 2009:549). It then becomes problematic to consider the secret ballot as solely a state secret or a personal secret; instead we must conceptualise it as a dynamic entity with fluid boundaries. As the case of the secret ballot highlights, there are a multitude of levels to the hierarchy of secrecy, both in terms of information and the social processes that secrecy generates and inhabits (Costas & Grey, 2014). As the hierarchy of secrecy presents epistemological problems, so too does the secret of the self, generating tensions with the concept of transparency.


As aforementioned, secrecy operates at a multitude of levels, and secrecy of the self is a fundamental aspect of this process. Foucault’s work on ‘technologies of the self’ is especially useful here in understanding how the act of voting in secret transforms the individual into a component of secrecy (Foucault, 1988). Voting can be understood as a technology of the self: it acts as a sort of reflective process during which the voter externalises their ideology in a form of confession which is then directed back onto the self and can either reinforce their beliefs, or undermine them (Bossy, 1975). The implications this then has for secrecy are manifold. Taken to the extreme that political intentions are secret to the world until they are externalised (as by marking a ballot paper), it is possible to understand the act of voting both as an act of transparency and secrecy. The two concepts appear diametrically opposed, however scholars draw a subtle difference between the two by suggesting that non-transparency is not the same as secrecy, as it lacks the intent of secrecy (Birchall, 2011; Riese, 2014). The act of voting could then be understood as inhabiting the gap between secrecy and transparency; by externalising the secret of voting intention then does one give up a secret, for it to move from an individual space to an institutional one? Such a question draws on ideas previously mentioned in this analysis about the levels of secrecy. In the context of voting, then, one secrets themself, with the state protecting an individual’s “right to opacity”, with the concept of “opacity” further supporting the conception of secrecy as a veil or layer to avoid any coercive gaze (Glissant, 1997). Another question to consider is whether, through every day life, individuals give away clues about their voting intentions and what effect this has on secrecy. The social identity theory suggests that an individual’s social identity is determined by the collection of groups to which they belong, often meaning there are strong indicators as to how an individual may vote (Tajfel & Turner, 1986). Although social identity theory does give indicators, what it breeds is speculation, thus the idea that social identity theory can bypass the multifaceted entity of secrecy in the ballot is erroneous. One can have suspicions as to how an individual may vote, but the vote is secret until it is revealed to an audience of the self.


Furthermore, the spatiality of the secret ballot exposes yet another set of secrecy dynamics attached to the voting process. To understand the spatial aspect of voting, one must first grapple with the concept that voting as we know it now is the product of over a century of management, rendering the act of voting synonymous with secrecy; “secrecy has become integrated into the spectacle” (Paglen, 2010; Bratich, 2007:42). The study of secrecy as a spatial entity is dominated by discussion of secret spaces in military contexts; little attention is paid to secrecy on a smaller scale but with great importance. The polling booth, as a secret space, allows for Foucault’s notion of “technologies of the self,” whereby voters are able to reveal their intentions and solidify them (Perkins & Dodge, 2009; Foucault, 1988). Thus, whilst the polling booth acts as a secret, opaque physical space to evade coercion, it can also be conceived as an intellectual secret space. Altman suggested personal space and territorial behaviour are key mechanisms of privacy, both of which are evident in the process of voting, meaning spatial aspects of secrecy are more dynamic than Westin’s static interpretation (Altman, 1975; Westin, 1967). The levels of secrecy also have an impact on the spatial aspect of secrecy: whereas states keep secret how specific citizens voted constantly, the cost to the individual of how revealing they voted often decreases with time, adding the element of chronicity to the competing dynamics of secrecy (Croissant, 2014). This analysis would then suggest that chronicity has differing effects on different levels of the secrecy dynamic. Here, the concepts of chronicity and spatiality have been blurred as one is able to conceptualise spatiality not simply physically, but also with reference to time and intellectuality. On the etymology of secrecy, Birchall posits that the Latin secretum “simply separates or sets apart certain phenomena from view” (Birchall, 2016:153). Birchall’s point further evidences the fact that secrecy requires a spatial element to be able to set it apart from view. Thus, secrecy then should also be conceptualised as a fluid spatial entity, and its implications differ depending on the level that secrecy is operating at, and the chronicity of the secret.


Ultimately, this analysis has demonstrated the complexity and multifaceted nature of secrecy, utilising the secret ballot in order to illustrate the tensions and undercurrents at work. Operating in a gap in the current literature, secrecy has here been examined through the lens of a democratic instrument, hence avoiding much of the oversimplification that existing secrecy literature in the field of national security suffers from (Brunea & Dombrowski, 2006). Counter to Holt’s claim that “secrecy is the enemy of democracy,” it is evident that secrecy should not be conceptualised as simply as Holt would posit, but instead should be acknowledged and considered carefully, taking into account competing dynamics and stresses (Holt, 1995:3). Secrecy is a varied and convoluted beast, however one should avoid drawing facile conclusions on its normative value, and see it instead as a natural force existing between actors to be influenced and harnessed.