Do you think having our MPs voting in secret in Parliament would be good for democracy? Despite the diversity of my readers, I’m pretty confident you’d find the idea that having MPs vote in secret on legislation might be good for democracy as absurd. Unless that is, you are an older person with links to Italy* – where having MPs vote in secret used to be a key part of its post-Second World War democracy and the attempt to ensure fascism couldn’t rise again.
For post-war Italy, the danger at the front of people’s minds was that of MPs once again being intimidated into back despotism, and secret voting was part of the cure.
Italy has since abandoned such secret voting, but it remains a good example of how the historical legacy loaded into the political systems of different countries results in very different, even contradictory, administrative solutions even when countries share the same aims for their political systems.
I was reminded of this watching the brilliant documentary film, An African Election, which covers the 2008 Ghana Presidential election. Much of the drama in this engrossing film comes from fears of electoral fraud. (As you watch it, note that the as fears of fraud grow, there is less and less sun around and more and more night time. A clever piece of editing rather than a dramatic change in the length of the days.)
The methods taken to protect against fraud in Ghana are often the complete opposite of those taken back when fraud was a widespread danger in British elections in the 19th century.
Then in Britain the emphasis was on getting all the votes to one safe, central location so that they could be counted securely. In Ghana, the emphasis is on counting locally – so the ballot boxes can’t be intercepted and packed when making long journeys elsewhere.
In Britain, the emphasis became increasingly on having elections in closed, confined spaces – to protect against crowds threatening the fairness of voting. By contract in Ghana, the opposite is welcome – having not just voting but even counting in the open air with large numbers of people around, using crowds as a protection against interference.
These electoral culture contrasts are a small part of what makes An African Election such an enjoyable watch. The far larger parts are that it entertainingly covers a dramatic election contest, made by a team who had extensive close access to the key players.
A highly recommended film.
You can buy An African Election on DVD here.
* Or unless you are a pedant with a penchant for following the details of how the Speaker of the House of Commons is elected, for the use of secret elections for that post has often been seen as a way of making the election independent of party whips.