Secret voting

Published February 23, 2021
The writer heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.
The writer heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.

THE PTI’s push for open voting in the coming Senate polls has upped political tensions. Since the matter is sub judice, I avoid the legal issues before court but review the political merits of open voting.

Secret voting by individual voters in national polls became common by the mid-20th century to end voter intimidation and ensure their privacy. But parliamentary voting for polls for posts like speaker and for legislation is held openly in almost all mature democracies. Since legislators are accountable to their individual voters, they are expected to vote broadly in line with their views. Voters have the right to know how their legislators vote on all issues.

In fact, parties too have this right as legislators are usually elected via a mix of their own and party vote banks and resources. This raises the issue of whether legislators must toe party lines under open voting. Some argue they should, given the help they receive from the party brand and resources during general elections. Also party-based politics, which works better than non-party politics, requires a group to pursue a common vision. So if party members vote contrary to party lines too often, its efficacy is nixed. Candidates are also aware of the party manifesto and in seeking party tickets implicitly and even explicitly commit to supporting it in parliament if they win.

The push for open voting is apt, but not its timing.

The opposite logic is that legislators must have the freedom to vote as per their views and making it mandatory to vote along party line would make parties autocratic and top-down. In fact, this reason is also used to justify secret parliamentary voting so that parties can’t pressurise legislators into blindly toeing party lines. But others feel that secret voting can lead to vote buying and corruption.

Advanced parliamentary democracies like the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand strike a balance. Voting is almost always open. There are no state laws that require legislators to vote along party lines. But a few parties, such as Australia’s Labour party, take a formal pledge from legislators to do so. Most parties also use informal processes like parliamentary ‘whips’ and sanctions to ensure voting discipline. Yet they also provide some free voting on contentious issues like the death penalty or on issues outside their manifestoes. Still, overall voting in these countries is almost always along party lines. Overall, then, the voter’s and the party’s right to know how their legislators are voting and the emphasis on party politics take precedence over legislators’ voting freedom but without nixing it fully.

Our Constitution’s Article 226 requires secret voting in all parliamentary polls other than those of the prime minister and chief minister. Legislative voting is open but the use of voice votes makes it tough to identify how individual legislators vote. Thus there is a need to better track individual legislators’ votes. Article 63A says party legislators can be de-seated for voting against party lines in the prime minister and chief ministers’ elections and votes of no-confidence and on money and constitutional amendment bills. Parties also use various informal processes to keep legislators in line and voting is mostly along party lines. The practice of open legislative voting is in line with advanced democracies. However, the secret voting clause for most elections held within parliament is not.

Thus PTI’s push for open voting in the Senate polls is apt, but not its timing, motivation, selective coverage or logic. Pushing this issue so close to polls via multiple methods sends the signal that it is motivated more by its own electoral prospects than transparency aims. This view is strengthened by its narrow focus on Senate polls only and not all parliamentary elections with secret voting. It ignores even the Senate chair polls in which major charges of cross-voting were seen in the earlier secret vote to remove the incumbent.

Its logic that Senate polls are not held under the Constitution as they are held by the ECP and thus don’t fall under Article 226’s clause for secret voting is weak. Any poll required to be held by any constitutional clause falls under the Constitution irrespective of who holds it.

Its logic that Article 59(2) about proportional representation for Senate polls means its results must mirror party assembly strengths is also wrong. The reference merely means the seats a party gets must be in proportion to the votes it gets in Senate polls via the single transferable vote system given in that clause. The fact that senators are not required to vote along party lines in Senate polls negates this logic too. Thus, whatever the court decides, the PTI should bring a comprehensive bill to end all secret voting in parliament after the Senate polls, leaving it to parties and legislators to decide how much voting freedom the latter would have.

The writer heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.

murtazaniaz@yahoo.com

Twitter: @NiazMurtaza2

Published in Dawn, February 23rd, 2021

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