What Americans Lost When We Abandoned the Secret Ballot

My father likes to say that the secret ballot means that he doesn’t have to listen when I tell him how I voted. This joke conceals a serious point: Ballot secrecy is not just a right of the individual but also a guarantee to all that my vote was not wrung from me by bribery or intimidation.

Out of a desire to make voting “easier” and perhaps exaggerated fears of public gatherings during the pandemic, most U.S. jurisdictions permitted unrestricted mail-in balloting in 2020. What did Americans lose when ballot secrecy was attenuated or vanished altogether?

Make no mistake, ballot secrecy is incompatible with secure mail-in balloting. At the polls, we each go into a little booth and make our choices in private. By contrast, no one knows where a mail-in ballot was filled out, or if a party or union activist hovered over the voter or even filled in the circles. Nobody knows what inducements, whether cash or threats, were offered to ensure that the person voted “correctly.” And if the ballot was “harvested”—turned in to the vote-counters by activists instead of by voters themselves—our suspicions deepen.

To verify that a mail-in-voter is entitled to cast a ballot and has done so only once, the vote counters who are legally entitled to open the envelope need to know who signed the outside. True, one can physically separate verification of voters’ identity by sending each voter two envelopes—an outer one for the person to sign and an inner one in which the voter places the filled-out ballot. In the vote-counting room, one set of workers can verify the voter’s identity at one table, destroy the outer envelopes, and give the inner envelopes containing the ballot to another set of workers, who then open those inner envelopes and tabulate the votes. As long as everybody follows these rules, ballot secrecy is preserved, even with mail-in balloting.

But in the United States, the secretaries of state who have ultimate responsibility for state and federal elections are partisan officials; county officials are partisan officials, too, and many of their permanent staff are members of partisan public employees’ unions. Even when poll watchers from both parties are present, in heavily blue cities the nominal Republican machinery is often controlled by those who control the Democratic machinery. Back in the early 1990s, I worshiped in the same South Chicago synagogue as the Democratic ward committeeman. One day, he turned to another fellow worshiper, a staunch Republican, and offered to make him the GOP ward committeeman. “Don’t worry,” the Democratic committeeman reassured the other fellow, “my wife and I will fill out all the papers and do all the work.”

Was the Democratic committeeman’s offer 100 percent kosher? Was his only concern to have an intelligent and politically astute Republican colleague in the ward? Permit me my doubts. The Democratic committeeman’s decades of political activism subsequently came to an end when he was caught in a false-flag dirty trick putting up anti-Semitic posters to attack his own candidate. Presumably, the committeeman’s offer to our fellow congregant was made in the same Chicago spirit that motivated him to put up those posters.

Any of those vote-counting workers or party officials may discover how you voted and give that information to those who will use it against you at work or at school, possibly with the help of the highly partisan staff at big tech companies like Google and Facebook. If you think nothing like that could happen—if you think that the laws that forbid that kind of thing are generally enforced—remember that we have seen people harmed by illegal or unethical releases of public records, with the victims generally on the political side of Jack Ryan or Joe the Plumber, and the perpetrators suffering no criminal or civil penalty.

In most democracies, mail-in voting is severely restricted or nonexistent. It is nonexistent in France, for example, where elections are conducted by a civil service so electorally nonpartisan that it seems indifferent to democracy, having faithfully served heads of state as diverse as Nazi collaborator Marshal Petain, republican Charles de Gaulle, socialist François Mitterrand, and Rothschild & Co. banker Emmanuel Macron. In Israel, mail-in-voting is restricted to diplomats posted abroad and those on active military duty—and in the 1950s, when David Ben-Gurion’s Israel Workers’ Party controlled the government and the civil service alike, high-ranking Army officers had their mail-in ballots opened and their vote recorded by the secret police. Keep in mind that, while the Israeli secret police once gathered and used information only on a few VIPs, Big Data now has that information on everybody.

So yes, as a professional political scientist, I miss Election Day, the physically isolated voting booth, and the private casting of ballots. The secret ballot was devised in the 19th century to prevent intimidation or bribery by neighbors, employers, and party activists—and it worked. Now that unbribed, unintimidated voting no longer serves the purposes of one American political party and the corporate and class interests that that party favors, the secret ballot seems as dead as the whistle-stop campaign.

For the sake of our democracy, let’s hope I’m wrong.

Editor’s Note:  This piece originally appeared at RealClearPolitics.


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About Michael S. Kochin

Michael S. Kochin is Professor Extraordinarius in the School of Political Science, Government, and International Relations at Tel Aviv University. He received his A.B. in mathematics from Harvard and his M.A. and Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago. He has held visiting appointments at Yale, Princeton, Toronto, Claremont McKenna College, and the Catholic University of America. He has written widely on the comparative analysis of institutions, political thought, politics and literature, and political rhetoric. With the historian Michael Taylor he has written An Independent Empire: Diplomacy & War in the Making of the United States (University of Michigan Press, 2020).

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