Outside the 1872 Cafe on 431 W Main Street casting my vote in the original ballot box used by Susan B. Anthony in 1872. [Photo: Evan Bala, 1872 Cafe barista, 10/23/20]
According to the psychology of queuing, people most dislike waiting in lines when the wait is unexpected and/or feel anxiety when they can’t gauge how long the wait will last. This was my experience at the early voting poll at Empire State College on Westfall Road.
At about 8:45 on Saturday, the first day of voting, I took the 10 minute bike ride to the college. Although I shouldn’t have been, I was surprised that already about 150 people were lined up, snake like, around the building. I realized I have never had to stand in line before to vote, whether in western New York, southern Wisconsin or southern Rhode Island. My anxiety level was high, so I returned home. The theories of queuing psychology were right.I returned later that day, then Sunday, then Monday, then Tuesday. Each day the line felt too long and chilly. Finally, on Wednesday the 28th, I timed my return perfectly and quickly cast my ballot
As a prop for the story, I asked if I could take a picture of my unmarked ballot. The monitor said no, but according to
“Should You Take a Ballot Selfie?” (Valeriya Safronova, NYT, 10/20/20), in New York State taking a selfie is actually legal. Although I didn’t make a federal case of it, I was justifiably incensed that my free speech rights were being impinged during this, my 6th trip to the poll. Are selfies really unconstitutional?
At the same time, I realized that in both my vote this week and the ostensible one for Bello in 2019, you can never know if I am lying or telling the truth. Because, of course, our system uses the secret ballot. (Incidentally, the rule against taking a selfie of a completed ballot is meant to eliminate vote buying like the kind not done by Bello. Otherwise, the voter could prove his fidelity to the pact by presenting the selfie.)
Unbeknownst to many, the secret ballot was a latecomer to the American political system. The election of 1892 was the first national electional conducted wholly by secret ballot. When Susan B. Anthony cast her illegal vote in 1872 in Rochester, she did so with a public voting system.¹Traditionally, voters gathered in the town square and voted by voice or hand. Voting was not a private, individual choice but a communal act in which in which observers held voters responsible for their decisions. Voting was not unlike the scenes conjured in Brighton High School graduate Shirley Jackson’s 1948 short story “The Lottery.” In Jackson’s masterpiece, the townsfolk all gather once a year to select a “candidate” — only in the case of The Lottery, the townspeople voted with their stones.
In a relatively short time, open voting gave way to the secret ballot, and today is almost non-existent.
With this sad fact in mind, my modest proposal is that all votes be publicly recorded on a national database, similar to how Finland publishes the salary of all its taxpayers. No more keeping secrets.Reviewing the history of public voting — conducted when the electorate was all male — shows that public voting was deemed to be manly and upstanding, while an inclination towards secret voting was evidence of bad character.
In “Rock, Paper, Scissors: How we used to vote.”(The New Yorker, Oct. 2008), Jill Lepore describes perception of voting during the colonial era:
Our forebears considered casting a “secret ballot” cowardly, underhanded, and despicable; as one South Carolinian put it, voting secretly would “destroy that noble generous openness that is characteristick of an Englishman.”
Real men unhesitantly stand up for what they believe, not cowering behind the voting booth curtain like the Wizard of Oz. The image of the coward chilled my bones. Am I not spineless for concealing my vote at Empire State College?
Furthemore, as seen in Third parties at the Brookside polling place (25th Congressional District), during the 2016 New York State primaries, half my friends were for Hillary Clinton and half for Bernie Sanders. Lacking backbone and not wanting to alienate either side, I voted for Lincoln Chafee as a write-in candidate, keeping the fact to myself.
Chafee briefly ran for the Democratic nomination, but dropped out after one or two debates, and was not on the ballot. I was actually the only voter that day to write-in a candidate. Were voting public, my inability to take a stand one way or the other — Clinton or Sanders — would be on full display. If asked, I would have to admit I voted for Chafee just because we were fellow alums from Brown University and because when Chafee was my senator in Rhode Island, I shook his hand. (Incidentally, In 2004, Chafee, then a Republican who voted against the Iraq War, claimed he wrote in George H.W. Bush for president, but, of course, we can never know for sure.)
In “The un-englishness of the secret ballot” (1978), Bruce Kinzer argues that the secret ballot was contested upon its introduction in nineteenth century England, considered to be at odds with and detrimental to the virtuous and honorable character — and upright manliness — of the Englishman:
A system of secret voting might suit a nation whose people were hypocritical, cunning, furtive, and deceitful (…), but it had no place in a country like England, whose people – noted for their independence, manliness, honesty, and frankness – always preferred to conduct their affairs in the open and in the light of day. [from “Against the secret ballot: Toward a new proposal for open voting” by Bart Engelena and Thomas R.V. Nys, June 2013]
Unfortunately, Kinzer’s descriptors — hypocritical, cunning, furtive, and deceitful — accurately capture our fallen modern body politic — with my electoral obfuscations and dodges as exhibit A. The United States needs open ballot voting — and its attendant manliness and honesty — but perhaps does not deserve what it lacks.
Besides restoring ancient virtues, public voting will increase voting. While the turnout rate in this election may be the highest since 1908, participation is usually woefully low. Through a variety of reforms—early in-person voting, “no excuse” absentee ballots, elections entirely by mail—modern civic activists have tried to lure new people to the polls. Yet voting rates remain abysmal.
What might actually work entails returning to the 19th century’s surveillance public voting culture. The most effective tool for turning nonvoters into voters is a threat to send neighbors evidence of one’s apathy. With a few clicks on the public database, all the slackers, goofballs and refuseniks who failed to show at the polls would be known. Instead of sporting the manly and womanly “I Voted Sticker,” non-participants would be branded with a scarlett A — ABSENT.
Not only will public voting produce more voters, it will produce better voters. As John Stuart Mill famously argued in the 19th century, voting is not a right but a trust. By trust, Mill meant that each member of the electorate trusts the other members to take their vote seriously by placing public interest above narrow self-interest. As Mill says, a secret vote is, by definition, a selfish vote. Only if a man votes “under the eye and criticism of the public” will he put public interest above his own.
Fundamentally, Mill sees ordinary voters as very similar to elected representatives who vote openly under the eye and criticism of the public. Congress rarely votes by secret ballot, nor should the general public. During the impeachment, some advocated that the Senate vote secretly, an idea quickly abandoned.
Think of how haphazardly and badly people vote today. It’s not absurd to imagine someone voting for Trump because they read on a garbled-English Russian disinformation site that Biden covertly wears an ankle monitoring because he is sex offender or vote for Biden because they read a National Inquirer article saying Trump sleeps in a coffin and drinks human blood. Knowing their vote would be made public might nudge various doofuses to make better informed decisions, easily accomplished by reading Talker of the Town.Finally, there would be collateral social benefits from public voting. For example, in the dating sphere much time could be saved by simply clicking on the voter database. If dating has reached the courtship phase, and your partner woos you by championing your political persuasion, one click can reveal if they are a lying hound dog. ² As one wag said, the secret ballot makes any attempt to reveal one’s vote similar to the attempts of the fiancé telling his girlfriend that nothing happened in Vegas. There is no way of knowing he is being sincere.
¹ As explained by NebraskStudies.org, in 1891 Nebraskan suffragists tried to extend suffrage to women in elections for municipal offices. By 1891, Nebraska had adopted the secret ballot, causing suffrage opponents to claim that with the secret ballot, letting women vote would cause “untold mischief.” Presumably, the secret ballot would allow women to vote contrary to their husbands — and then lie about it.
² Another benefit of the secret ballot would be to undermine the social taboo that asking someone how they voted is considered rude or impolite. In an October 28, 2008 Dear Abby column, Should you tell who you voted for?, Abby tackles this supposedly sensitive question.
Most letter writers dislike being asked. For example, one citizen found such interlocutors to be nosy:
Dear Abby: The quickest way to get people to drop the subject is to reply, “Isn’t it great that we live in a country with private ballots, so we cannot be persecuted or nagged for who we vote for?” The nosy person generally changes the subject after that.
—U.S. Citizen, Oxnard, Calif.
U.S. Citizen’s sentiments are typical yet disappointing as they further the narrative that voting is not a communal event. I say that so-called “persecution” and “nagging” actually lead to productive civic dialogue.
With the open ballot, the “nosy” person can simply go to the voter database. As can the husband of one letter writing woman who never tells anyone for whom she voted, not even her husband.