Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Secret Ballot

At the Volokh Conspiracy, Jonathan Adler recently posted a short item indicating that electronic voting machines might generate information that would allow officials to identify who voted for whom.

Which got me thinking . . . where does the idea of the secret ballot come from, and why is it such an article of faith today? Jonathan called even the possible breach of secrecy "disturbing." But why?

To the best of my knowledge, before the Civil War voting was an intensely public act. The best description of the process of voting before the War that I have read is contained in a book by Christopher Olsen, which focuses on Mississippi. There, particularly in rural areas, the local polling station was often a local plantation house. The senior election inspectors, appointed by the county board of police, were respected local citizens, often the owner of the plantation and other neighborhood planters. The assistants and clerks who checked election records and recorded votes might be their sons or the sons of other planters, usually in their twenties and making their entry into the public sphere.

Parties and candidates printed their own ballots, with only that party's candidates named. The ballots were often different colors or sizes, making them easily recognizable. As the voter approached the porch, ballot in hand, the owner might well greet him by name and shake his hand, ask for his family or comment on the weather, and offer him food and drink. The other inspectors would do likewise. They might also introduce the voter, if he were relatively new to the area, to the younger members of the gentry who were serving as clerks.

After a clerk checked his name against the county records, the voter then handed his ballot to the returning officer, also a wealthy member of the local gentry. The officer certainly knew at a glance which candidate's ballot he was receiving. In addition, because most preprinted ballots did not name candidates for all offices (particularly the myriad of local offices), some voters might ask for help in writing additional names on the ballots they were turning in. The returning officer then took the ballot and placed it in the box.

In short, one's vote was not secret in the slightest: in excess of a dozen members of the local gentry might know which candidate's ballot was being cast. Nor is there any evidence that anyone thought that voting should be secret, or believed that that fact impinged in the slightest the democratic nature of Mississippi society. Voting was a public, ceremonial act, not a private one.

I have no doubt that voting in say, New York City or Springfield, Illinois, differed dramatically in many respects. But I have no reason to believe that it was not equally public and not secret.

All of which brings me back to the initial question. Why and how did it become such a bedrock article of faith that the secret ballot is an essential element of democracy? More importantly, does that assumption stand up to scrutiny?

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