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Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill and the Secret Ballot: Insights from Nineteenth Century Democratic Theory

Abstract : As part of a series of demands for political reform in Britain in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, Jeremy Bentham famously made a case for use of the secret ballot in elections. The advocacy of Bentham and his disciples on this issue fed into broader and at times robust public debate, particularly in the 1830s. On the opposite side of this debate was another leading political theorist, John Stuart Mill, who opposed secret ballot reform. This paper re-examines the contours of this debate, making the case that it has important implications for contemporary political theory and debates about democracy. Firstly, and in terms of making sense of the debate itself, it points to the need to make a distinction between the “voter intimidation” argument and the Benthamite preference aggregation argument. Secondly, it suggests that distinguishing between vote-buying and voter's dependence provides support for defenders of the secret ballot. Thirdly, it demonstrates the potential application of the idea of voting held in “trust” to the so-called boundary problem in democratic theory. Finally, it points to the potentially wide but overlooked application of the Chartist idea of open voting (allowing the oppressed to identify their allies) in contemporary political theory.
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Submitted on : Wednesday, November 3, 2021 - 8:54:17 PM
Last modification on : Tuesday, January 18, 2022 - 11:42:04 AM




Tom Theuns. Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill and the Secret Ballot: Insights from Nineteenth Century Democratic Theory. Australian Journal of Politics & History, 2017, 63 (4), pp.493 - 507. ⟨10.1111/ajph.12406⟩. ⟨hal-03413630⟩



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