The secret ballot is now a global phenomenon. Voting remains a varied procedure, of course. Within legislatures it is still practised openly, and voting by show of hands is often used in the context of administrative meetings and other small-scale forums. But for parliamentary elections the secret ballot is regarded as the only mechanism capable of ensuring ‘free and fair elections’. For this particular kind of voting it is upheld as a global ideal, and is commonly regarded as the natural complement to universal suffrage and democratic freedom. Significantly, it is the only method of voting explicitly endorsed by institutions such as the United Nations and the European Union.1 If voting remains a varied practice, the secret ballot has nonetheless become the global norm for the democratic election of national, regional and local assemblies.

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In recent years historians have begun to...

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