Dutch local elections are over and the “stemfie” was the big winner. In large numbers would voters take a picture of themselves (“selfie”) with their readily filled-out ballot (their “stem”) in the voting booth. Most people think that is funny and even the leaders of national parties, like Alexander Pechtold of the D66 did so – after all the Dutch authorities formally declared this to be legal!
I am convinced this is not funny, in fact it is dangerous and illegal in a true democracy. The “stemfie” is ridiculing the secrecy and freedom of the vote.
When I say that, people look at me baffled as if I just proposed flying to the moon (Ok, I did that too in the past …). So, here are a few arguments why I think so strongly about that issue:
Social pressure of peers or government can eventually force you indirectly to make your vote public through a “stemfie”. That prevents you from freely making your choice. Pechtold could have still voted for his secret love VVD (or SP) and said afterwards in public that he voted D66. This freedom he does not have anymore. Next time he does NOT produce a stemfie people will wonder whether he really supported the local candidate at all. Pechtold can live with that, but he exercises peer pressure on all his other party members to forfeit their right to a secret vote as well.
In fact, the method to make secrecy optional was used in East Germany during the communist era to get the desired results. You would cast your vote “voluntarily” openly and everybody who did not do so was marked down – so that led to 90% + results for the reigning government..
Hence, every election where you voluntarily can cast an open vote is not a secret election anymore and is invalid in my mind – even if you are living in a still functional democracy. Clearly Germans are more sensitive about this issue due to their history, but that does not mean one should ignored that experience elsewhere.
Moreover, if many people make their votes public in a documented way then also the votes of the few others are not secret anymore – especially in a local election with a few votes. An extreme example: If 5 people in one area have voted for a certain party, which has 6 members, and those 5 people make their vote public with a photo, there is no way for person number 6 to argue that he too voted for that party. Also if in one small community 99 of 100 votes are made public, also the one remaining vote is not secret anymore. Even if the margins are not so tight, at some point the number of really secret votes may become uncomfortably small.
The freedom to vote against a party line or against social peer pressure in your neighbourhood is gone and people may be afraid to cast particular vote. Just the fact that people, may be afraid to be “caught” voting for or against a certain party – because everyone else took pictures – invalidates that election.
Note that stating who you voted for outside the cabin is perfectly fine. This is one of the few occasions where it is perfectly ok to be able to lie.
Another serious issue is that this makes it possible to buy or manipulate votes. If someone offers money for your vote or threatens you if you do not vote as desired, you could still vote differently in the secrecy of the cabin. If you can, however, document what you vote, this will quickly become part of the deal and the election is no longer free and fair for everyone.
NB: Of course, something similar can happen if you vote by letter at home. Hence, this is a concern and taking pictures of that ballot should be equally illegal. Moreover, you could probably still sneak in a different ballot in the envelope at home. This is not really possible in a public election booth.
In summary, allowing people to photograph themselves with their ballot in the cabin seriously undermines and invalidates any free and secret election. Moreover, you cannot demand from autocratic countries how to vote properly, if you yourself do not make sure you follow the rules strictly yourself and set the very highest standards.
In my mind the Dutch authorities have failed miserably in this regard and endangered the democratic process in the long run.
P.S.: Of course, the true low point
of those elections happened after the voting booths were closed, which reminded me of a yet darker part of German history and sent me home shivering in my car…