Issue #69 February 2024

‘Of the Mode of Voting’ by John Stuart Mill (and of Over-Sharing)

Boris Ignatovich, "Chess Tournament", (1930)

Of the Mode of Voting

The proposals outlined by John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) in a chapter of Considerations on Representative Government (1861) entitled ‘Of the Mode of Voting’ did not usher in any change to the mode of voting and there is little chance that they will. But, still, even though they changed nothing and even though we may disagree with them, Mill’s proposals remain of interest.

Mill argued against the secret ballot on the ground that voting is not a right but a trust and a duty. As such, he believed that it should be carried out publicly – so as to foster discussion of what is in the public interest – and without any element of secrecy. He believed that the secret ballot encourages the indulgence of purely personal and self-interested motives whereas we should rather have in mind what is best for society as a whole.

He believed that although there is sometimes an argument for private voting – namely, “when the mischievous power of the Few over the Many is increasing,” (Mill 1861: 309) – that does not apply today (1861), when “the power of coercing voters has declined and is declining” (Mill 1861: 310).


Of Over-Sharing

Mill’s argument has not worn well. After a comparatively short period of time, it now seems like a relic from another era. This may in part be because boundaries between what is considered private and what is considered public have shifted since Mill’s time and there has been much recent talk of the boundaries becoming blurred. Certainly, areas around the act of voting have become blurred.

Although the core act of voting remains private, prior to the vote there is much that can be known about the outcome, with varying degrees of confidence, via opinion polls. This is not a development that Mill foresaw. His argument would suggest that the public knowledge provided by these polls would encourage public discussion about what is best for society as a whole. But today that is not obviously the case.

One premise of Mill’s argument is that in public discussion the public would either want to be concerned with the public good or, at least, would want to appear to be concerned. That is an assumption that now, in the age of social media, appears naïve. The empirical evidence seems to weigh against Mill.

But exactly how? It is not that opinion polls encourage direct coercion; but, in that we see politicians shift their position in the light of the polls rather than their convictions, it seems that voting predictions might encourage the purely personal and self-interested motives on the part of politicians – as they attempt to bribe us by appealing to our own self-interest.

Admittedly there is no direct coercion involved but aside from that the present system seems to combine what Mill saw as the worst traits of both private and public voting – the selfishness of private voting and the manipulation (indirect coercion?) of public voting. They both feed off each other. With each side making extreme efforts to pressure their most apathetic ‘natural’ supporters to vote, the end result seems to be to reduce political discussion in the run-up to an election to the constant check and reinforcement of group identity with the most essential question being, ‘are you one of us?’ – and with all else following from whatever answer is given. No wonder that artificial intelligence is so easily able to imitate political ‘discussion.’

(Of course, it might well be that we are less capable of empathy in the face of unfamiliar situations and unfamiliar people and that in our political lives we cannot fully transcend the limits of our social groups. However, we should not decide a priori where the limits of our empathy might lie, if we can rather find out in practice.)

So, why do we answer the pollsters so readily? It may be because at some level we agree with Mill that voting is a trust and a duty (and, at any rate, not just a right). For in providing a ready answer we exhibit an innate openness to questioning (and a lack of secrecy). Our political instincts are generous. In this respect, Mill may have been right.

However, although our instincts are generous, it is worth bearing in mind that we can indulge in all manner of political discussion, about both policy and statecraft, without divulging the crucial ‘us’ and ‘them’ information of our voting preference. Naturally, others would then be free to guess how we vote, but they would not know.

In summary, because of social media and opinion polls, voting is not wholly public but, if we include the periods immediately preceding a vote and immediately afterwards, it is more public than in Mill’s day and the result does not seem to have been beneficial to society as a whole. It is in that respect that the argument that has not worn well. Indeed, it seems almost outlandish in its naivety.

What then is to be done, in a situation in which Mill’s argument seems so obviously wrong and yet there seems in practice to be a willingness to embrace it?

There is still an argument to be made that there is some good that can come of politicians being able to systematically gauge how their policies are viewed by the general public. But whether opinion polls should then be prohibited just in the immediate run-up to an election or not at all is not a discussion that I wish to here. My concluding proposal is more modest. It is not that we should rein in political discussion (of policy and statecraft) but simply that we should give a moment’s thought to the question of ‘how do you intend to vote?’ Even if our political instincts are generous and we regard voting as a trust and duty, we should remember that this is not a question that we are obliged to answer and, in some circumstances – for the sake of the public good – there may be good reasons not to answer it.

Dr. Stephen Leach is an Honorary Senior Fellow at the School of Social, Political and Global Studies of Keele University and is co-editor (with James Tartaglia) of The Meaning of Life and the Great Philosophers (2018).

Works Cited

Mill, John Stuart. (1861 / 2015) ‘Of the Mode of Voting’ in On Liberty and Other Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


February 2024


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by Ermanno Bencivenga

Berkeley/Norinaga/Marx; Awareanalysis, Part 2: Capitalism, burnout, depression

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'Of the Mode of Voting' by John Stuart Mill (and of Over-Sharing)

by Stephen Leach