Secrecy of Ballot: Cornerstone For A Free And Fair Election

Elections are one of the most important components of a democratic society. The standards that have been recognised as norm for an election are free and fair. Elections are actually
28 Apr 2018 10:00
Secrecy of Ballot: Cornerstone For A Free And Fair Election
Fijian Elections Office

Elections are one of the most important components of a democratic society. The standards that have been recognised as norm for an election are free and fair. Elections are actually evolving as societies progress. Election management bodies, academia and parliaments regularly look at enhancing the election practices to make the process more transparent and efficient.

The dynamics of elections have changed drastically from its early introduction in ancient Greece, Rome and India. In ancient Greece, the type of democracy was known as direct democracy that is the citizens voted on policy initiatives, this included voting on legislation and executive bills.

Early voting was simple and included methods such as raising hands to support a bill, oral votes and so on. There were also rigorous restrictions on suffrage, usually foreign residents, women and slaves were not allowed to vote.

Over time, most countries started accepting democracy as the ideal type of government to ensure good governance and hence, elections were re-defined to suit the growing ideology of democracy. There are various principles and standards that needs to be complied with to ensure that the elections are free and fair. These includes universal suffrage, one person one vote, transparency, accountability, secrecy of ballot and so on.

Secrecy of ballots

Secrecy of ballot is one of the fundamental principles guaranteeing that a voter’s vote should remain secret at all times.

This principle has a universal acceptability and is deep-rooted in various treaties and international agreements such as Article 21(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 5 of the Convention on the Standards of Democratic Elections, Electoral Rights and Freedoms in the Member States of the Commonwealth of Independent States and Article 23 of the American Convention on Human Rights.

The principle of secret ballot was first formally constitutionalised in France in 1795 in the Constitution of the Year III of the revolution. This was carried on and also embedded in the 1848 Constitution (Article 24 of the Le suffrage est direct et universal).

For Australia, this principle was legislated in the Tasmanian Electoral Act of 1856. In the United Kingdom in 1870 the London School Board Election was conducted by secret ballot, two (2) years later in 1872 the principle was legislated in the Ballot Act.

Secrecy of ballot does not only include that a person’s vote is not disclosed but it is also providing means for a voter to mark the ballot in secret. The principle allows the voter to indicate his or her will more confidently and free from any intimidation, or influence.

During the election period there is a tendency that candidates may bribe, influence or coerce the voters to vote in favour of them, in such situations secrecy of ballot tries to negate this issue.

In some countries (including Fiji) there is a restriction on campaigning for a period before the election to allow voters to make-up their mind. Voters are given an opportunity to mark their ballot in isolation without anyone being present.

Consequently, secrecy of ballot encourages voters to turn up to cast their votes as there is no influence at the voting screen or in the polling station.

There is also an inter link between the right to privacy and secrecy of ballot. The constitutional right to privacy is often assessed in light of protection of personal privacy however, the right to privacy arguably also bestows an implied right of political privacy by the virtue of the fact that it is a personal expression and communication of individuals political will.

In addition, secrecy of ballot also supplements other electoral principles such as transparency and accountability.

The onus to ensure that secrecy of ballot is maintained is upon the respective Electoral Management Bodies. In Fiji, the right to secret ballot is embedded in the Constitution under section 23(3) (b).

Fijian Elections Office commitment

The Fijian Elections Office (FEO) is committed towards the propagation of its eight (8) core values, one of which is secrecy of ballot. The FEO has taken significant measures in ensuring that each voters vote remains secret.

At the polling station voters are issued with ballot papers which does not have any form of sequential number on it. Without any sequential number the ballot paper cannot be traced back to whom it was issued to initially. This ensures that the vote remains secret.

As stated earlier secrecy of ballot also means providing ways for voters to mark their ballot papers in secret. In Fiji, voters are required to go to the cardboard voting screen to mark their ballot paper. The voting screen used by the FEO is made of cardboard, covering the sides of the marking plane so that no one can see whom the voter is voting for.

In 2014 General Election, it was the first time when voters had voted in a conducive environment using these voting screens which promotes the principal of secrecy of ballot. Similar screens are used in Australia and New Zealand.

In Fiji, voters are also instructed to fold their ballot papers as soon as they complete marking it at the voting screen. This ensures that no one else can see whom the voter has voted for. It is important to emphasise that once the ballot paper is marked it is only the voter who holds onto it before it is placed in the translucent ballot box. A translucent ballot box is used so that ballot paper can be seen as it is dropped into the ballot box, this provides voter satisfaction as well as strengthens the transparency at the polling station. In elections prior to the 2014 general election a wooden ballot box was used which had the potential of being tampered with.

Section 53(9) of the Electoral Act, 2014 prohibits any person to use a mobile phone, camera or any other electronic device while in the polling station, this is done so that no persons vote is captured on camera. Moreover, section 53(4) states that ‘while in the polling station, a voter is not permitted to reveal or announce the content of his or her ballot paper, and any voter who does so, must have his or her ballot paper confiscated and invalidated by the presiding officer, provided it has not yet been inserted into the ballot box’. These legal provisions indicate an important policy consideration in ensuring that secrecy of ballot is maintained.

A greater level of secrecy is maintained during pre-poll voting where the voters are required to place their ballot papers in a secret envelope before placing it in the ballot box. Given that pre-poll voting often happens in remote areas and is counted later at the Count Centre there is a possibility that ballot papers may unfold in the ballot box during its transportation from different locations.

Although it would be impossible to determine which voters ballot paper it was if it gets unfolded (since there is no sequential number), the inclusion of secret envelope helps in ensuring and assuring voters that their votes are secret. Postal ballots are also placed in a secret envelope before it is inserted in the transmission envelope.

The secrecy of the ballot has been carefully planned and implemented in Fijian Elections. The FEO has ensured that the voter remains confident of their choice remaining a secret. The most important stakeholder in an election is a voter and the FEO has ensured that polling processes protect and preserve the voter’s rights foremost. Our electoral system ensures that voters can vote with confidence, security and freedom.

Source: Fijian Elections Office

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