Common Sense: The good, bad, and ugly secret ballot

Note: This is then ninth post in an occasional series on Common Sense Election Integrity, summarizing, updating, and expanding on many previous posts covering election integrity, focused on Connecticut. <next> <previous>

We often take for granted the idea of the secret ballot. We see elections in other countries with people putting a folded ballot into a ballot box. We go into a voting booth and want our privacy. Some want to conceal their vote from relatives, friends, employers, fellow union members, or church members. Yet there are alternatives and sometimes we want them, sometimes they are necessary.

Researching the history of the secret ballot, in The Hidden History of the Secret Ballot, a couple of years ago, I was surprised to learn:

  • It was implemented in the U.S. generally after the Civil War
  • It was implemented for partisan reasons – to suppress the black vote, under the assumption it would hamper the illiterate from voting.
  • There is also the tradition of the New England Town Meeting with voters standing or raising their hands to vote.

This year we have fought hard to protect the secret vote in Connecticut, yet not for partisan reasons. It has several benefits:

  • It keeps votes from being bought, sold, or intimidated – prior to the Civil War votes were regularly bought and voters under peer and other pressures to vote in particular ways.
  • It helps the losers accept the election result as the actual will of the people.

One alternative to the secret vote is the public vote. Sometimes we would prefer a public vote, sometimes it is necessary:

  • Our representatives in the Legislature, Congress, and most public bodies vote in public. Not so long ago, committees in Congress voted in secret. Members could tell both sides of the public and lobbyists that they agreed with them and it was ‘others’ who voted the wrong way, blocked, fixed, or promoted legislation. Without a public vote we would have no idea how our elected officials actually voted. No way to hold them individually to account.
  • Where votes are proportional, they need to be recorded and verified by ownership. Examples include stockholder votes or condo associations where some votes are based on ownership proportions.
  • A public vote is much easier to verify. After every close election we hear charges by the losing side or their supporters than a particular vote was incorrectly counted – by a candidate or party in Connecticut – or a government official unhappy with the declared winner in another country. Sometimes those charges may be true. In every case it reduces the trust in the process and in democracy.
  • On the other hand, a public vote can also lead to charges of payments or intimidation deciding the election.

The Connecticut Constitution gives us the right to the secret vote. In considering the Constitutional Amendment this year, we note that it represents a third alternative: A semi-secret vote, if anything a worse alternative than either a secret vote or a public vote with the disadvantages of each.  It would allow a special, very vulnerable class of voters, deployed military, to waive their right that their vote be secret – a right we claim is not theirs, but every voters’ right that everyone’s vote be secret.  It would have none of the advantages of a public vote, since nobody knows if the soldiers votes are known, only perhaps, a few insiders may know. There would be no public verification, even for the soldier.

One final example.  Last year we had a petition circulated in our condo complex to ask the Board to rescind a vote to remove part of a border fence. It became very hot issue.  Over two-thirds of the residents signed the petition. The contingent in favor of removing the fence charged that many people were intimidated in signing the petition, others mislead, and others did not know what they were signing. There probably were some cases where each of those concerns were justified. We have had similar changes in every public vote. There are two issues: 1) What would be the actual free choice of the majority? 2) How can the losers accept the result? The answer is to actually conduct a secret vote – yet it must be in a way that everyone trusts the process.

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