Final Word

Voting is serious business – even solemn


Voting and the process by which it takes place is a serious, solemn business which at times, the consequences of which at times pray for careful consideration.

Last week, after the Constitutional Court spent a long working day, lasting until eight in the evening, listening to some of the best legal minds in the country argue on the subject of voting, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng thanked them and said: “You have no idea how challenging it was to try and conceptualise the issues properly until we had the benefit of your submissions. We are truly and genuinely indebted to you for the enlightenment.”

The big bone of contention before the court was the matter of whether a vote of no confidence could, or should, be one cast in secret by members of parliament and whether the Speaker has the discretion on the procedure to be followed.

With the learned judges, at the time of writing, still having to deliver judgement, and this column about the meaning and/or origin of words and expressions we leave the legal and political issues for another time and place.

However, it is always useful and enlightening for deeper understanding, to see where the every-day words, we can sometimes argue so fiercely argue about, have their roots.

Where voting comes from

What is, as a rule quite useful, is to start off with the present-day definition of a word or expression, and work one’s way back from there.

In the case of vote, probably the best catch all formulation reads: “A formal expression of opinion or choice, either positive or negative, made by an individual or body of individuals. Note emphasis on formal – screaming and shouting, throwing stones of other objects and all the other ways of pressing dissatisfaction, or approval for that matter, does not formally qualify.

The modern process of what we today know as voting, can be traced back to ancient Greece, where the populace got a formal opportunity to express their opinion or choice between candidates to represent them. However, the word plebiscite would be the more appropriate one to describe that process.

The ancient Greeks used pebbles to cast their votes – depositing a small stone into separate urns to mark their choice. After the voting was done, the contents of the urns were emptied and counted to determine the people’s choice.

Later more about that particular process and the footprints that the days of voting with pebbles did leave behind in our modern vocabulary.

The word vote, which was first used in English around the 1550 to describe one’s “formal expression of your wish or choice, came to us from the Latin word votum, meaning "a vow, wish, promise to a god, solemn pledge or dedication," with the use as a noun, a neuter of votus, past participle of vovere, meaning "to promise or dedicate."

The indicate the group or class of people taking part, or qualified to take part, in the process, the word voters was first used in 1888.

But, back to the pebbles, which did not get totally lost. We still often encounter the word ballots in connection with, like in “we will be going the ballots in 2019. This goes back to the Greek-days of voting with pebbles and came to us from the 16th century Italian word ballotta, the diminutive of balla, meaning a small ball.

Final word

While it is not for us to try to influence the learned judges of the Constitutional Court, and by the time you read this thier judgement would be history, there is one principle, however, dating back to the days of pebble voting that we hope they consider – and implore the speaker to do if given the discretion: all pebbles looking pretty much alike, nobody could tell whose was whose, preserving the principle of secret voting.  

by Piet Coetzer

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Final Word

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