On the literally transparent FIFA voting booth

At the beginning of 2016 world football’s governing body, FIFA, had an integrity problem. One proposed solution was literal transparency. The June 2015 presidential election had been won by Sepp Blatter only for him to resign days later in disgrace, finally undone through his associations with corruption, cronyism and extravagance [1]. The February 2016 election necessitated by Blatter’s fall witnessed a short-lived and ultimately unsuccessful proposal from one of the reformist candidates, Jordanian Prince Ali bin al-Hussein: transparent voting booths.

Both the problem and the solution were framed around the sanctity of the secret ballot. It was widely acknowledged that during the 2015 election the 209 eligible voters, each a representative of a national Football Association (FA), had been under pressure to document how they voted, covertly photographing their ballot papers whilst inside the voting booth. What was required, claimed Prince Ali, was a transparent voting booth, such that the act of voting could be observed taking place in the absence of any devices for photographing the marking of the ballot paper [2]. 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 endorsed Prince Ali’s transparent voting booth as “the only way to ensure ballot secrecy” [3]. 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, Prince Ali insisted that the only way to ensure that the 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. A circulated diagram of a “voter’s cabin” 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. A frosted acrylic hood would obscure the hands of the voter within an 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 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.

Vigilant observation was critical: the preventative effects of a transparent voting booth would be meaningless if the act of voting was not witnessed. It did not appear that these witnesses themselves needed to be encased in a (much larger) transparent material so that they in turn could be observed by additional witnesses in order to prevent any wrongdoing: the problem of infinite regress was perhaps recognised as, well, a problem. Left somewhat cloudy was the issue of whether or not the witnesses would be allowed to retain their mobile phones or whether it would be necessary to regulate or prohibit the kind of high zoom lenses used by photographers which sometimes inadvertently capture glimpses of sensitive hardcopies of documents being carried by hand from one place to another. One distinction implicit in 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, 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 Prince Ali, who, upon ultimately conceding that his 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 [4].

Criticism was not shortcoming. If a voting booth is rendered transparent, its principal function, namely to conceal or make private the act of voting, is redundant. Voting booths are surely definitionally opaque: if a voting booth must be transparent, why have one at all? Why not just have a table? “I have several questions”, sports writer Kevin McCauley noted laconically [5]. Was the entire episode, including the 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 destined to share the fate of British Labour Party leader Ed Miliband’s 8’6″ slab of limestone inscribed with his May 2015 General Election promises, hastily erected, immediately ridiculed, quickly withdrawn? [6]. The “Edstone” is just the sort of object that should be acquired by a museum, because without the evidence of the physical thing no one in the future will believe that it was actually made. Sadly, it is 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 [7]. 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 Gianni Infantino elected president of FIFA (with Prince Ali trailing in third place), but apparently no plans have yet been made to acquire the prototype transparent voting booth [8].

Princes often become patrons or heads of sporting institutions, and their vanity projects are often taken seriously because they are members of a Royal family. 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, straightforwardly rebutted him by simply pointing out that that’s not what is meant by transparency. If Prince Ali had conflated figurative transparency with literal transparency, and furthermore implied that the deployment of a literally transparent medium to replace an opaque one was not just necessary, but in fact sufficient to reform a large and complex institution, he was not the first to do so.

For example, electoral fraud in 1850s San Francisco was revealed when “stuffer’s ballot boxes”, dark blue, opaque and fitted-out with false bottoms and hidden side panels, ready packed or “stuffed” with pre-marked ballot papers, were discovered. 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. “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”, writes Foutch. As Jollie’s 1858 patent application put it, “the ballot box 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. The deployment of a transparent medium may well 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 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 robust and allegedly bullet-proof, but a bullet-proof and transparent ballot box is irrelevant in the face of other forms of corruption such as voter intimidation. Foutch describes an 1874 cartoon in Harpers Weekly depicting emancipated male African-American voters queueing to place their ballots in a glass ballot box, only to be met with a white man with a pistol, whilst male white voters placed their votes unencumbered: “although the New York councilmen were convinced the box itself could withstand bullets, the voters themselves were still vulnerable” [9].

In his 2003 history of computing and the British state, historian of science 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 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. 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 and 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, the prompt was a lack or failure of trust rather than a real increase in accountability” [10].

Literal transparency can also be an obfuscation, 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 [11]. In making public large quantities of data, 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. The ubiquitous deployment of literally transparent materials in governmental and corporate buildings, 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 [12]. As curator and art critic Thomas Thiel notes, the September 2015 Volkswagen emissions scandal should perhaps not be understood merely as extraordinarily hypocritical for an institution that fetishises transparency, but rather itself reveals the limitations of transparency, literal or figurative. 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: disclosure, even real-time “dashboard transparency”, will not necessarily empower citizens, prevent corruption or restore trust [13].

The crude literalism that leads to transparent voting booths is not, however, merely an unfortunate interpretation of transparency discourse. Rather, this discourse often demands literalism, in both its claim that we should mistrust that which we cannot immediately see, and its claim that in seeing, conversely, we can immediately trust. “The imperative of transparency suspects everything that does not submit to visibility”, claims philosopher Byung-Chul Han in his recent short book The Transparency Society. “Therein lies its violence,” he ominously adds [14]. A culture that insists on the primacy of the visible and the visual is one that implies that the multiple problems of an institution, namely FIFA, can sincerely be overcome with a specific technical, displayable, fix. In audit culture, the generation of performance indicators is prized, and the indexicality of such indicators is often forgotten or at least minimised: the achievement of the performance indicator becomes the goal in and of itself. Under transparency, that there is indexicality or mediation at all is outright denied: that which is made visible is all that there is, and that is all there is to be said about it.

The nature of corruption within FIFA, which might have multiple, intersecting causes, such as global inequality, post-colonialism, and the nature of corporate multinational sponsorship, were all quite absent in the public pronouncements of FIFA reformers. That 207 of the 209 votes in an election to a body that is supposed to represent both men’s and women’s football across the globe were to be cast by men was unremarked upon; neither was it noted that the most prominent advocate of electoral reform was an unelected Prince [15]. “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 Prince Ali’s rival and fellow reformer Jerome Champagne the week before the election, as if global professional sport existed outside of business and politics [16]. One of the ironies of proposing literal transparency as a way to ensure a secret and thus just ballot is that transparency fetishises accountability, whilst the secrecy of a secret ballot has historically been important because it deliberately prevents accountability. A show of hands, an open ballot, making public who has voted for whom: these are all systems where voters are accountable for their vote, and it was this very accountability that historically prevented individuals voting as they desired. In an important sense, a secret ballot is efficacious because of the lack of accountability: the right not to reveal, or give an account of, the manner in which one has voted. Foregrounded in Prince Ali and Jimmy Carter’s secret ballot was a notion of individualism, and liberal free choice, guided “solely by conscience” [17]. As Birchall explains, in supposedly opening government and the public and private sectors to public scrutiny, transparency encourages citizens to be both entrepreneurial but also vigilant with respect to data at exactly the same time that forms of scrutiny and oversight traditionally undertaken by the state are either diminished, outsourced or privatised. In short, transparency is invariably neoliberal, transferring responsibility from the state to the individual [18]. At FIFA, under Prince Ali’s proposals, the 209 voters, analogous to a citizenry, have only themselves to blame if, having cast their vote in a transparent booth, and been seen to do so, they still succumb to influence. We’ve put you on display, what more do you expect of us? This is the danger of the transparent voting booth episode: it is not so much that it is a ridiculously literal device, but rather that it is thoroughly depoliticising, delimiting and restricting the boundaries of acceptable critique or reform of an institution or a political system.

Anthropologist George Marcus recently proposed an exhibition entitled Making Transparency Visible, based on ethnographic fieldwork undertaken at the headquarters of the World Trade Organisation. Like FIFA, headquartered in Zürich, the WTO, from its base in Geneva, espouses certain types of transparency whilst remaining a discreet and opaque institution. Office doors are pointedly left open, even at weekends, a staged accessibility, whilst the building itself at times remains heavily guarded, inaccessible [19]. Marcus suggests display cases and plastic screens of varying degrees of literal transparency and opacity, sometimes obscuring and sometimes revealing the exhibited objects and documents: an ironical and self-aware exhibition, in which museum modes of presentation, representation and accountability are themselves acknowledged. One conceit of transparency is that it succeeds in giving an account, another is that the act of being presented with an account is intrinsically empowering. Making an exhibition or even a museum of transparency might necessarily entail giving some kind of an account of transparency, literally putting the material culture of transparency on display: to be clear, the prototype transparent booth is an extraordinary object that belongs in a museum. But to see transparency is not to dispose of the problem of transparency. Witnessing a ballot paper being marked, or a lottery number being generated, or a car being manufactured, does not necessarily empower individuals, nor does it necessarily correct or restructure entrenched mechanisms of power and influence. Museum display itself can sometimes be an obfuscation: a claim that to exhibit and reveal is to rationalise, to make sense of, to place, to empoweringly give an account. We’ve put it on display, what more do you want? A museum of transparency that displays the material culture of transparency whilst resisting the seductions of transparency: this, I think, would be interesting.

[1] Andrew Jennings, The Dirty Game: Uncovering the Scandal at FIFA (London: Arrow Books, 2016).

[2] “Prince Ali Sends Transparent Voting Booths to FIFA Presidential Election”, The Guardian, February 22, 2016, accessed August 21, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/football/2016/feb/22/prince-ali-transparent-fifa-voting-booths

[3] Jimmy Carter, “Statement from Former US President Jimmy Carter”, PRNewswire.com, February 21, 2016, accessed August 21, 2017, http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/statement-from-former-us-president-jimmy-carter-300223481.html

[4] “Prince Ali Fails in Bid for Transparent Voting Booths as CAS Dismisses Appeal”, The Daily Mail, February 25, 2016, accessed August 21, 2017, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/pa/article-3462104/Prince-Ali-cautioned-speaking-rival-FIFA-presidential-candidate.html

[5] Kevin McCauley, “FIFA Presidential Candidate Fights for ‘Transparency’ with Literal Transparent Voting Booth,” SBnation.com, February 22, 2016, accessed August 21, 2017, http://www.sbnation.com/soccer/2016/2/22/11092780/fifa-presidential-candidate-fights-for-transparency-with-literal

[6] Adam Withnall, “Ed Miliband Unveils Stone Carved with Labour Pledges to Be Placed at Downing Street If He Wins,” The Independent, May 3, 2015, accessed August 21, 2017, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/generalelection/ed-miliband-unveils-stone-carved-with-labour-pledges-to-be-placed-at-downing-st-if-he-wins-10221946.html

[7] This is seemingly exactly what has happened: in November 2015 The People’s History Museum, Manchester, “made tentative enquiries into acquiring the stone for its collection… but everyone they spoke to denied any knowledge of its fate”, and it has furthermore been claimed that it has now been destroyed with a sledgehammer. Frances Perraudin, “The Ed Stone: Where Is Ed Miliband’s Monumental Folly Now?,” The Guardian, December 22, 2015, accessed August 21, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/news/2015/dec/22/the-ed-stone-ed-milibands-monumental-folly-labour-election-limestone

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FIFA_World_Football_Museum

[9] Ellery Foutch, “The Glass Ballot Box and Political Transparency”, Common-Place.org 16(4) (2016), accessed August 21, 2017, http://common-place.org/article/glass-ballot-box-political-transparency/

[10] Jon Agar, The Government Machine: A Revolutionary History of the Computer (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), 427-429. ERNIE 1 is now on display at the Science Museum in London, more visible than ever before. By contrast, the whereabouts of Lancelot and the other original National Lottery machines, retired in 2009, is unclear. “GPO ERNIE I,” Science Museum Group Collection Online, accessed August 21, 2017, http://collection.sciencemuseum.org.uk/objects/co62675.

[11] Clare Birchall, “Radical Transparency?,” Cultural Studies <=> Critical Methodologies 14(1) (2014): 78.

[12] “The Manufactory,” Volkswagen Group, accessed August 21, 2017. https://www.glaesernemanufaktur.de/en/the-manufactory

[13] Thomas Thiel, “Opaque Transparency,” in Transparenzen/Transparencies, ed. Simone Neuenschwander and Thomas Thiel (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2016), 21-27.

[14] Byung-Chul Han, The Transparency Society (Stanford: Stanford Briefs, 2015), 13.

[15] The two (out of 209) female FA presidents at the time of the February 2016 vote were Isha Johansen of Sierra Leone and Sonia Bien-Aime of the Turks and Caicos Islands.

[16] Brian Homewood, “Mobiles Banned from FIFA Voting Booths to Ensure Secrecy”, Reuters.com, February 17, 2016, accessed August 21, 2017, http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-soccer-fifa-votes-idUKKCN0VQ2JF

[17] Carter, “Statement from Former US President Jimmy Carter”.

[18] Birchall, “Radical Transparency?”.

[19] George E Marcus, “Making Transparency Visible: Centre William Rappard, Headquarters of the World Trade Organisation, Geneva,” in Curatorial Dreams: Critics Imagine Exhibitions, ed. Shelley Ruth Butler and Erica Lehrer (Montréal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016), 28-45.

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