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In the domain of voting methodologies, what moral, ethical, and procedural distinctions arise when comparing secret ballots in congressional votes and party votes?

Why do the principles and rationales for maintaining secrecy often differ in these two contexts, leading to varying approaches in upholding transparency and accountability?

While it's clear that secret ballots in party votes are commonly accepted and justified, there appears to be a less favorable perception of secrecy in congressional votes, despite potential shared reasoning. The aim is to gain a deeper understanding of these distinctions.

Background Information

For example, during bipartisan votes on critical issues, like impeachment, where lives are at risk, it's notable that members of either party might be influenced by safety concerns for themselves and their families. This potential bias for safety, rather than voting based on personal beliefs, raises questions about the duty of elected officials to hold other officials accountable.

Similarly, party votes, such as those determining the Republican nominee for Speaker of the House, can be influenced by security concerns, including members receiving death threats. How do these concerns intersect with the principles and rationales for maintaining secrecy in such votes, and how do they compare to the context of congressional votes?

In such situations, how do these safety considerations intersect with the principles and rationales for maintaining secrecy in these votes, and how do they compare to the context of party votes?

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    People who voted against Jim Jordan in the open house votes received death threats. That fact alone gives a reason why they made it secret and more people voted against him with the secret vote.
    – Joe W
    Oct 21, 2023 at 23:01
  • My 'member safety secret voting' question asked here politics.stackexchange.com/questions/81525/… that got closed as a dupe per the accepted answer already touched on something with this respect when I asked about it in more of that context. Now I aim to gain a deeper understanding of these distinctions as per the what I listed in the question Congressional vs. Party Votes: Secrets & Differences. Oct 21, 2023 at 23:06
  • Because they are more honest with their votes when it can’t be held against them?
    – Joe W
    Oct 21, 2023 at 23:07
  • The concept of impeachment voting, much like other votes, raises questions about its operation, rationale, and distinctions. Transparency and accountability in voting are essential for elected officials. However, the acceptability of secret voting varies by context, prompting differing opinions from political enthusiasts and experts. I seek a deeper understanding beyond these common-sense principles. Oct 21, 2023 at 23:15
  • Could you add background information to the question, particularly what you mean by "party vote" and what type of congressional vote you're interested in. Otherwise you're likely to get vague or irrelevant answers.
    – Stuart F
    Oct 25, 2023 at 12:14

1 Answer 1

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Open voting is a fundamental principle of Congress and other Parliament-like bodies. This is because Congress is a public body composed of representatives. To judge how well you have been represented, you must know, at least, how your representative has voted.

On the other hand, parties are private bodies, and how they organise is essentially a private matter. This public/private contrast is the basic principle which justifies holding a vote of the Congressional Republican party in private.

There is an expectation that a party will act in a unified manner. The party will come to a consensus on some matter, and then the whole party will act together. This means that members of the public can know how their representative voted by simply knowing which party they belong to. Yes, this means that a representative may have personal misgivings about some matter, but they have been elected as a member of a party and are expected to lay those to one side. The extent to which a representative may vote in public according to their personal beliefs, and against the consensus of their party does vary from system to system. Congress has relatively low levels of "party discipline" for a two-party system, probably as a consequence of the strict separation of powers.

The process of reaching a consensus may be done "in secret". This is both a practical and political benefit. Practically you want people to be honest in the process of consensus-building, this is easier if done behind closed doors. Politically, consensus building looks messy and by its nature involves people changing their viewpoint. We know that voters don't like this; we prefer united parties. So parties (which, remember, are private bodies) choose to keep this process hidden.

Now to choose a nominee for speaker, a consensus needs to be reached quickly. And a mechanism for doing so is the vote. It's done in private, and may even be a secret ballot, for the reasons given above. The vote is only part of the internal debate, with party members privately sharing their views on particular candidates with each other. Such a private internal debate will have happened among the Democratic party members of Congress too. What is exceptional is that large numbers of the Repubican party have chosen to bring their debate into the public instead of doing what the Democratic party representatives have done and, once a nominee is chosen, publicly backing that nominee.

But to return to the question. Votes in Congress are public, because Congress is a public body. Votes in a party group may be private or even secret, because parties are private, and know that making their divisions public hurts the party in the ballot box.

It may be worth noting that in the UK, the position of "Speaker" is a strictly non-partisan role. The speaker is expected to leave any party to which he or she may have been a member and act in a strictly neutral manner. The election of speaker is, therefore, one of the few votes in Parliament done by a secret ballot - because in the choice of speaker, MPs are not expected to be representatives of their constituents.

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    The constitution (A1, S5) actually specifically mandates that each chamber of Congress regularly publishes a journal of its doings, including a record of votes on a measure if just 1/5th of the members request it; though it doesn't provide much more in the way of concrete details (for compliance, rectification, or anything else). So while the House in particular has a long established history of public proceedings and openness (the Senate less so, but has been so for some time now), it's more than just a matter of tradition and historical momentum. Oct 25, 2023 at 9:57
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    Thank you for providing a clear and detailed response to the question, addressing the main distinctions and the underlying reasons for the differences in secrecy and transparency between congressional and party vote. Oct 25, 2023 at 11:09
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    "There is an expectation that a party will act in a unified manner." If this were really true, we wouldn't need votes -- the leader of the majority party could just announce their concensus decision.
    – Barmar
    Oct 26, 2023 at 21:31
  • I was hoping for a bit more exploration of the potential intersection of security and safety concerns as reasons for secret voting. For instance, in situations where member security and death threats are significant factors, are there any scenarios where a congressional vote could technically be conducted in secret, even if this is not the standard practice? It would be interesting to delve into whether such circumstances could technically justify secret congressional votes, even if they are not currently part of the established norms. Oct 26, 2023 at 21:44
  • Alternatively, it raises the concern of a potential loophole in which individuals with malicious intent could exploit social media and other platforms to propagate hatred towards elected officials, thereby inciting public sentiment against them. This kind of manipulation could lead to threats and harm, compelling the officials to prioritize their safety and that of their families over their convictions when voting on critical matters, potentially compromising the integrity of the decision-making process. Oct 26, 2023 at 21:51

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