Prince Ali of Jordan and the transparent FIFA voting booth

In February 2016 candidate Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan suggested that the best way to ensure the integrity of the FIFA presidential election to be held in Zürich later that month was to use transparent voting booths. Representatives of the 209 national Football Associations (FAs) were allegedly under pressure to use their phones to photograph their ballot papers whilst inside the voting booth in order to provide evidence of the way they had voted to other parties who might seek to influence the vote. It was, for instance, reportedly a widespread practice for FA representatives to document how they voted during the previous presidential election, won in June 2015 by Sepp Blatter only for him to resign days later in disgrace. Blatter was associated with corruption, cronyism and obscene extravagance: literal transparency in a critical aspect of the election process would, according to the Jordanian candidate, help restore the integrity of football’s world governing body.

Influence characterised as external and thus undue was alleged to be exerted by a variety of parties. In addition to the national FAs there are six Continental Confederations, which wield significant power. The confederations do not themselves cast votes in presidential elections, but four of them had announced their “preferred candidates” for the February election, UEFA and CONMEBOL backing Gianni Infantino, and AFC and CAF backing Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, for instance, with the implication being that national FAs were pressured to vote in line with their Continental Confederation. Prince Ali’s fellow candidate Jerome Champagne had also noted that domestic governmental and political pressure had been applied to national FAs to try to influence their vote. Prince Ali spoke of “punishments for member associations that failed to demonstrate political loyalty”, including delays to development projects, withdrawn tournament hosting bids, and “national teams starting to mysteriously face less favourable fixtures”.

Both the problem and the solution were framed around the sanctity of the secret ballot. In a statement former US President Jimmy Carter, whose NGO, The Carter Center, observes and evaluates elections around the world, not only described the secret FIFA ballot as “essential for ensuring that voters are guided solely by their conscience and not influenced by external pressure”, but also specifically endorsed Prince Ali’s transparent voting booth as “the only way to ensure ballot secrecy”. Rejecting the suggestion that, as in many types of election, banning mobile phones, cameras and other recording devices from the voting booth would be sufficient, Ali insisted that the only way to ensure that a secret ballot was secret was to make it as visible as possible. The traditional opacity of the voting booth did not ensure secrecy, but rather, prevented it. What was required was a transparent voting booth, such that the act of voting could be observed taking place in the absence of any devices for photographing or filming the vote itself. A diagram circulated by Prince Ali’s team of a “voter’s cabin” made mostly of clear acrylic addressed one immediate problem with making the act of voting visible: how to conceal the vote itself, the very point of a secret ballot in the first place. The diagram showed a frosted acrylic hood which would obscure the hands of the voter within the otherwise clear acrylic booth, much as some ATMs have a protruding plastic hood to shield the act of entering a PIN, with the effect that whilst the act of voting was made visible, the mark made on the ballot paper, or rather the specific location of the mark made on the ballot paper, itself remained concealed and hence secret. How this would prevent the photographing of ballot papers using tiny, concealed cameras within this small but still opaque space within the transparent booth was, regrettably, not fully explained.

Critical to the conception was that the act of voting must be vigilantly observed: the preventative effects of a transparent voting booth would be meaningless if the act of voting was not witnessed. It was unclear whether or not the witnesses in turn needed to be encased in a (much larger) transparent material so that they could themselves be observed by additional observers in order to prevent any wrongdoing, or whether it would be okay for the larger voting space to ultimately be bounded by an opaque set of surfaces, otherwise known as walls, ceilings, floors and doors. It was also not clear whether the (unspecified) witnesses would be allowed mobile phones or whether it would be necessary to regulate or prohibit the kind of high zoom camera lenses used by journalists routinely and sometimes inadvertently to capture glimpses of sensitive hardcopies of documents being carried by hand from one place to another. One implicit distinction permeating the proposal was that of appropriate and inappropriate influence; another was the distinction between good surveillance and bad surveillance. “I advocated for transparent voting booths on behalf of FA presidents who want to vote their conscience, without worrying that someone with a different agenda is looking over their shoulder”, Prince Ali noted later, implicitly contrasting an invasive and corrupting over-the-shoulder type of seeing with a non-invasive and corrective witnessing-the-act type of seeing. Indeed a certain type of photography was welcomed by Ali, who, upon ultimately conceding that his transparent voting booth plan would not be implemented, took solace in the fact that “the media will be closely watching for any evidence that anyone is photographing their ballot”: cameras would be trained on the booth in order to ensure the absence of cameras in the booth.

Criticisms were not shortcoming. It was gently pointed out that this was not quite what is commonly meant by governmental or electoral transparency. It was also noted that if a voting booth is fully transparent, its principal function, namely to conceal or make private the act of voting, is redundant, and hence there is no need for a voting booth at all. Voting booths are surely definitionally opaque: if a transparent voting booth is required, why not just have a table?

“Prince Ali’s transparent voting booths have arrived in Zürich – I’m told there’s one in this box #FIFA”:

The story struck me at first as so ridiculous that I was surprised that it was not satirised more than it was. Was the entire episode, including the theatrical unveiling of an actual transparent (and, incidentally, quite needlessly wheelchair-inaccessible) voting booth in a warehouse in Zürich, merely an ill thought out and soon-to-be forgotten stunt? Was this prototype transparent voting booth destined to share the fate of Ed Miliband’s 8’6″ slab of limestone inscribed with his May 2015 UK General Election promises, hastily erected, immediately ridiculed, quickly withdrawn? The “Edstone” is just the sort of object that really should be acquired by a major museum interested in collecting and documenting recent and contemporary political culture, because without the physical thing no one in the future will really believe that it was actually made. It is however just the sort of thing that doesn’t end up in a museum because, as an embarrassment and a failure, it is likely to have been suppressed or disposed. As it happens the FIFA World Football Museum, one of the last big projects initiated by Blatter before his fall from grace, opened on February 28, 2016, two days after the vote that ultimately saw Infantino elected president of FIFA (with Prince Ali trailing in third place). As far as I can tell, sadly no plans have yet been made for the prototype transparent voting booth to be acquired by the museum.

“And here it is unwrapped. Transparent voting booths for transparent voting, in a new transparent era? #FIFA”:

In the UK we are used to men demanding that their vanity projects are taken seriously merely because they are members of a Royal Family, and we are furthermore used to seeing them appointed patrons and heads of a variety of sporting institutions on similar grounds. Nevertheless I don’t think that it was because as a wealthy Prince he is expected to be indulged that no one at either FIFA or the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), both of whom successively considered then rejected Prince Ali’s demand for transparent voting booths, straightforwardly rebutted him by simply pointing out that that’s not what is meant by transparency. If Prince Ali had conflated the metaphor of transparency with literal transparency, and furthermore sincerely believed that the deployment of a literally transparent medium to replace an opaque one was not just necessary, but in fact sufficient to reform an immensely powerful, wealthy and complex institution, he was not the first person or institution to do so.

For example, electoral fraud in 1850s San Francisco was revealed when it was discovered that “stuffer’s ballot boxes”, dark blue, opaque and fitted-out with false bottoms and hidden side panels, had been deployed, ready packed or “stuffed” with pre-marked ballot papers. Cunningly on hand as a corrective alternative was New Yorker Samuel C Jollie’s new design for a transparent ballot box, recently described by historian Ellery Foutch. “In design and concept, it was the antithesis to the stuffer’s ballot box”, Foutch writes. “Where the San Francisco box was wooden, dense, and plain, hiding its contents from view, Jollie’s invention offered viewers a transparent glass globe hovering in an architectural armature of iron columns, proudly exhibiting its gleaming, crystalline interior.”

As Jollie’s 1858 patent application put it, “the object of my invention is the production of a ballot box which shall at all times exhibit the collection of the ballotings, in other words a ballot box so constructed that the bystanders may see every ballot which is put in, see all the ballots that are in, and see them when taken out.” Just as with Prince Ali’s transparent voting booth, visibility and vigilant surveillance were crucial. Unlike Prince Ali’s voting booth, Jollie’s ballot boxes were made extensive use of, in New York State at least, with an estimated 1200 to 1700 purchased, a few of which survive today in museum collections. In an extensive exploration of the iconographic depictions of these glass ballot boxes in political cartoons and allegorical representations, Foutch notes that the deployment of a transparent medium may well indeed have made the act of placing a ballot paper in a box less corrupted or corruptible by making it visible, but it would be, and was, a mistake to conclude from that that the voting and indeed electoral process as a whole was reformed by this technological fix to one aspect of the process. Jollie’s glass globes were very robust and even capable of withstanding bullets, let alone attempt to smash them with a fist, but a bullet-proof and transparent ballot box is irrelevant in the face of other forms of corruption such as voter intimidation. Foutch describes by way of an example an 1874 cartoon in Harpers Weekly depicting newly emancipated African-American voters queueing to place their ballots in a glass ballot box, only to be met with a man with a pistol, whilst white voters placed their votes unencumbered. “Although the New York Council men were convinced the box itself could withstand bullets”, writes Foutch, “the voters themselves were still vulnerable”.

Jollie’s glass ballot boxes eventually became unpopular due to the possible exposure to public view of the marks made and hence vote cast; “the voting booth, with its privacy curtains and narrow stalls, became henceforth the standard icon of the democratic process in the 20th century”, notes Foutch. The tension between privacy and visibility furthermore often reveals the degree to which publics both trust and defer to institutions and authorities. In his 2003 history of computing and the British state, The Government Machine: A Revolutionary History of the Computer, Jon Agar notes an intriguing difference between different forms of state-run lottery in the UK between the 1950s and the 1990s. ERNIE, the Electronic Random Number Indicator Equipment, deployed from 1957 to randomly choose winners of prizes among holders of government-issued Premium Bonds, was, Agar notes, a highly untransparent device: enclosed in grey steel cabinets, it’s neon tubes and teleprinters concealed, the mechanism whereby it generated random numbers remained hidden. In spite of this, there was very little criticism by the public or the media of the procedure by which winners were picked. For Agar, this highlights that the government and the government experts who designed and operated ERNIE enjoyed considerable public trust: “the bondholder had to, and largely did, accept faith in the closed verification procedure”.

Agar contrasts ERNIE to its 1990s equivalents, the literally transparent National Lottery machines named Lancelot, Guinevere, and Merlin. “These were see-through, low-tech devices”, writes Agar. “How could one doubt that the process is truly random when the viewer could see directly the bouncing numbered balls? By making the workings visible fairness was demonstrated, and transparency replaced trust in the expert. But Lancelot has only apparent transparency, yet it has attracted more suspicions of bias than ERNIE. Lancelot is a machine indicative of a culture in which there is a lack of trust: like the spread of the audit, – another technique of transparency – the prompt was a lack or failure of trust rather than a real increase in accountability.” In her 2002 Reith Lectures, philosopher Onora O’Neill claimed that the enemy of trust is not necessarily secrecy or opacity, but rather deceit. For O’Neill and others secrecy, diplomacy, discretion, and nondisclosure have a venerable tradition and function in politics and elsewhere. A culture that demands transparency is a culture that lacks trust, but transparency will not necessarily restore trust. “Transparency certainly destroy secrecy, but it may not limit the deception and deliberate misinformation that undermine relations of trust,” O’Neill claims. “If we want to restore trust we need to reduce deception and lies rather than secrecy.”

If increasing transparency can sometimes reflect an absence of trust rather than a restoration of trust, it is also the case that literal transparency can be an obfuscation, and indeed a way to mask or draw attention away from questionable practices. “Although we do not yet live in transparent times, we do live in an age of transparency advocacy”, notes cultural theorist Clare Birchall, who is wary of how transparency is presented as a seemingly unassailable good that transcends politics. An important critique of the rhetoric of political transparency by Birchall and others notes that in providing access to previously concealed information, an institution or an authority absolves themselves of responsibility for that which is revealed by shifting the public’s attention away from the content of the revelation and focusing it on the supposedly inherent virtue of the act of revelation. A similar critique can be made in the deployment of literally transparent materials to similar effect. The ubiquitous deployment of glass in modern governmental buildings and parliaments, for instance, operates in a similar way to the sharing of information and data through self-consciously transparent revelations: we’ve been transparent, you’ve seen our inner workings, we have given an account: what more do you want? In the late 1990s the Volkswagen group built what they termed a Transparent Factory, Die Gläserne Manufaktur, for manufacturing the Phaeton car model, using see-through architecture to communicate openly and reveal and display both the manufacturing process and the company’s “values”, with the finished models displayed in a multi-storey glass tower of brand-new cars. As curator and art critic Thomas Thiel notes in a publication accompanying an exhibition held in 2016 at galleries in Bielefeld and Nuremberg entitled Transparenzen, the September 2015 Volkswagen emissions scandal should perhaps not be understood merely as extraordinarily hypocritical for a institution that fetishises transparency, but rather itself reveals the limitations of the rhetoric of transparency, literal or metaphorical. The fraud was located in the software, not the hardware: the transparency of the factory was irrelevant, perhaps even a misdirection. Massive and complex financial fraud is executed on a daily basis at computer terminals in financial district offices made entirely of glass, it could be noted. The stress by Angela Merkel in the aftermath of the emissions scandal that it was essential for Volkswagen to be henceforth “transparent” failed to appreciate that being “transparent” hadn’t stopped the fraud in the first place: the imperative to disclose will not necessarily restore trust.

“The imperative of transparency suspects everything that does not submit to visibility”, claims philosopher Byung-Chul Han in his short 2015 book The Transparency Society. “Therein lies its violence,” he ominously adds. That which does not lend itself to being rendered visible resists being auditable, and this is a problem for those that insist on transparency, because as both Han and Birchall note, there is no transparency without pervasive audit and the pervasive measurement of performance indicators, quantifiable and visualisable. If auditability above all else is prized, the indexicality of a performance indicator is forgotten, and the achievement of the performance indicator becomes the end goal in and of itself. This might help us understand how it could be sincerely claimed that the multiple problems of an institution, namely FIFA, could be overcome with a specific technical fix, namely the deployment of literal transparency. The problem of corruption within the institution is framed in terms of the most visible aspect of a transaction: the casting of the vote. Obviously in many forms of life specific actions and their performance take on special significance, or become metonyms, and ballot boxes and voting booths are such things with respect to democratic representation. Nevertheless the nebulous and pervasive culture of corruption is reduced to the most obviously auditable aspect of it, the actual physical casting of the vote. The idea that there will be no further corruption if there is a transparent voting booth is of course ridiculous; the extreme literalism of locating corruption in and only in the act of voting is indicative of the relentless way in which transparency discourse does not allow for irony, shade, or multiplicity.

It is also, as is often the case with transparency discourse, weirdly depoliticising, and very much delimiting what are the appropriate and inappropriate boundaries of criticism and debate. The nature of corruption within FIFA, which might have multiple, intersecting causes, such as global inequality, post-colonialism, group psychology, and the nature of corporate multinational sponsorship, are all quite absent in the public pronouncements of FIFA reformers such as Ali, Champagne, and Infantino. That the 209 votes in an election to a body which is supposed to represent both men’s and women’s football across the globe were to be entirely cast by men was unremarked upon. The fact that the most prominent advocate of electoral reform was an unelected Prince goes unremarked. “It’s one of the principles of the Olympic Charter and the FIFA statutes to have the decision within football not influenced by external parties”, claimed Jerome Champagne the week before the election, as if world football existed outside of politics. Both Prince Ali and Jimmy Carter emphasised the ideal that “voters are guided solely by their conscience”. All fetishised the secret ballot, but a depoliticised notion of the secret ballot, lacking a historical understanding of its radical roots, hard fought for by, amongst others, the 19th century Chartist movement. Foregrounded instead was a notion of individualism, and liberal free choice, guided “solely by conscience”.

If voting is reframed as the pure expression of conscience, then all that does matter is the act, the transaction in the booth, and it’s just about conceivable that someone could sincerely propose that a transparent voting booth might meaningfully tackle corruption in world football. If a vote cast by powerful men to elect other powerful men can sincerely be viewed as outside of the realm of influence, a pure act of free expression, divorced from culture or society or politics, then maybe the deployment of Perspex could be sincerely proposed as a solution to institutional corruption. Perhaps. ERNIE 1 now resides in the collection of the Science Museum in London, on display, certainly more visible than it has ever been before; Agar’s work highlights how it is as much an object from and record of the history of deference and trust as it is an object from and record of the history of computing, gambling and revenue-generation. In my last blog post I concluded that the chainsaw used by Prince Harry in Namibia in 2015 to de-horn rhinos was such an interesting object that it really should be collected by a museum, even if I wasn’t sure what kind of museum. The one thing I definitely think having pondered the FIFA presidential election story is that Prince Ali’s prototype transparent voting booth is such a weird and interesting object that, if it does still languish in a warehouse in Zürich, it also really ought to be acquired by a museum, perhaps not a museum dedicated to football, but rather a museum concerned with contemporary political discourse.

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