Elections by secret ballot are often seen as a universal recipe for democratisation. Recent ethnographies of voting, however, show that its cultural presuppositions require study before such rationality is assumed.
Anthropologists focus increasingly on the cultural features of modern political institutions' bureaucracy, statistics and individualism that were normally regarded as universal and rational forms of spreading democracy, thus criticising late colonial theories of progress that were resurrected by neo-liberal geopolitics. Since the 1980s, international institutions have defined democratic progress by the ideal of free and unfettered political choice, usually materialised by the technology of the secret ballot. Currently, governance is often legitimated and measured by the extent to which this technology has been successfully implemented. Yet, such policies rarely take the practical history and ethnography of this technology into account. Recent ethnographies of the secret ballot and its surrounding socio-cultural relationships raise serious questions about the universality and rationality of this technology of voting. What cultural embeddings does the secret ballot require? How do different ethno-scapes of familial, corporate, machine-style, or commodified forms of politics deal with the technology of the secret ballot? What does this mean for policies that define the successful implementation of voting by secret ballot as a condition of international aid? What are the cultural and material conditions of the institutions of voting by secret ballot, anyway: electoral campaigns and their expectations of revolution through continuity? The process of registration of voters and candidates? The papers, voting booths and buildings that materialise the public performance of a secret vote? The process of counting and impersonal processing of individual votes? What is the role of fraud, franchise, fealties and foreclosure of voting in this so-called free process? These issues highlight the need for nitty-gritty ethnographies of elections by secret ballot by which to compare its cultural conditions, its material culture, its public performance and its global ideology.