How Venice Solved Its Political Corruption Problems

Corruption is like a virus, or a noxious weed.  If you turn your back on it for even an instant, you will find it has found creative ways to grow and spread.  Like any human activity, it can never be completely eradicated; but it can certainly be tamed and curbed, and prevented from interfering with the purposes of government.  But it takes leadership and determination, and a willingness to take certain risks.  And if anyone thinks that one man can make no difference in such matters, he need only study the example of Antonio Tron.

Let us go back to the Republic of Venice in 1491.  According to historian Pietro Bembo in his History of Venice, electoral corruption had forced politics in the city to a crisis point.  The procedure for electing magistrates (which in those days had civil as well as judicial responsibilities)  had become thoroughly compromised.  The reason for this was that the system for electing them did not provide electors with the privacy they needed to be truly neutral.  To understand why this was so, we must explain the Venetian election process at that time.

The electors (citizens of the republic) were brought into a hall and made to sit on wooden benches.  Two separate wooden boxes, each a foot high, were then brought in; one box was green, and the other was white.  The boxes were so constructed that they were wide at the top and narrow in the middle; this allowed someone to put his hand in the box, but only permitted one ballot to get to the bottom of the box.  The bottom of each box was removable when the time came for counting votes.  Each voter could cast his ballot as he pleased, by dropping the ballot in one box or another.

But these “ballots” were not papers at all; they were small cloth balls about the size of a walnut.  The cloth balls were made to be loose and soft, so that people could not clearly hear it drop into one box or another, in order to preserve the voter’s confidentiality.  According to Venetian voting laws, each voter had to insert both of his hands into a box, and have in one of his closed fists the cloth ball.  Then he would drop the ball into one box or another, and those around him would not be able to tell which box received the ballot.  Balls that fell in the white box were “for” a candidate, and those in the green box were “against.”

The system may sound secure and foolproof, but this was not the case.  As always happens, the instincts of man found a way to express themselves in corrupt practices.  Instead of implementing the system as it was designed, some powerful or influential electors would make a big show of openly casting a ball into the white box, and would then ask their friends to do the same.  Peer pressure took hold, and no one would want to look bad in front of his colleagues.  So they would fall in line and vote for someone or something that they did not believe in, just to avoid the condemnation of their peers.  This was one of the reasons why the upper tiers of Venetian leadership became filled with mediocrities.  The good men were afraid to run for office, and the bad ones flocked to politics.  We see the same phenomenon today in our own political system.

Antonio Tron–about whom Pietro Bembo says disappointingly little–produced an innovation that helped solve this problem.  His system was so successful, we are told, that it remained in use in Venice until the 1780s.  Tron decided to invent a consolidated and improved voting machine; he also reformed the method by which voting took place.  Instead of two separate boxes, he had them attached to each other, side-by-side, in one apparatus.  Only one opening was made for the urns, and it was hidden behind a tube about the width of half a palm (tubum prominentem circumduxit semi palmae spatio, described in I.60).  The idea was that a voter could put his hand into this tube and then direct hand towards either box, without anyone knowing which box he was aiming for.

Another of Tron’s innovations was to make it easier to vote “no” for a candidate.  The “no” box was made close to the tube of entry, so that someone who wanted to vote against someone could secretly drop his ball in the close cavity as his hand moved down into the tube.  He could pretend to be extending his arm inside to reach the “yes” box, while actually he might have already dropped his ball in the “no” cavity.  The idea was that voters could not pretend to do one thing (i.e., vote “yes” for a candidate), and secretly do another (i.e., reject him) without any fear of being detected.

This was the sophisticated innovation in voting procedure that Tron developed for use in Venice’s Great Council, the Senate, and in the Council of Ten.  According to Bembo, things began to improve immediately upon adoption of this new system, as voters could now feel free to cast their ballots without running afoul of partisan hacks or bigwigs.  For especially serious matters, such as capital cases and important trials, a third voting urn was used in addition to the device just described.  This was to be used if someone was undecided; this urn was kept separate from the other two urns.

This was not all.  The Venetian Council of Ten did not just make improvements in voting machines and procedures.  They sent a very clear message to the public that corruption, demagoguery, and insider dealings would not be tolerated.  How this happened, we will now relate.  An influential office-holder (one of the Quarantia for capital crimes) named Gabriel Bon, together with a man named Francesco Falier, proposed a new law whereby every citizen over forty years of age in dire financial condition would receive a public gift of one pound of gold.  Citizens between twenty-five and forty who were facing financial hardship would receive, they proposed, a half of a pound of gold.  The supposed purpose of the law was to take care of citizens who were in need.

So Bon and Falier proposed their law to the Senate and to the Great Council.  But the Venetian senators were not fools.  They could see that this law was little more than a disguised attempt by two ambitious politicians to curry favor with the masses by passing out public money.  Bon and Falier thought that they might be able to win higher offices in the future if they could buy the love of the citizenry with gold from the treasury.  The Senate sent the two politicians to see the Venetian doge, who warned them sternly to drop the proposal.  The two men pretended to agree, but secretly made efforts to put certain provisions of the law into effect.

Now when the Council of Ten found out about this, they had Bon and Falier arrested and jailed.  They were then banished to the island of Cyprus (a Venetian commercial possession), and were told that they would face the death penalty should they ever attempt to leave the city of Nicosia on the island.  Some of Bon and Falier’s associates were also sent into exile in Crete, and not permitted to leave the town of Rethymno.  This severe sentence was meant to send a message:  demagoguery, insider dealings, and corruption would no longer be tolerated.

Determined and vigorous leadership, new procedures, and new ways of thinking can be very effective in limiting political corruption.  But unless the will to solve the problem exists, little or nothing can be achieved.


Read more in my translation of On Duties.