Voting: Things are Not Always What They Seem

It’s interesting how Voting often comes up in so many discussions, and how often folks believe that Voting is a well established, stable process that is usually fair, except for those pesky touchscreen voting machines that are corrupting a process that has long been well managed. (Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like unverified touchscreen voting machines.)

It is, for example, “common knowledge” that Hitler was “democratically elected”, and this example is sometimes used in cocktail party conversation to indicate that democracy can lead to totalitarianism. What is less well known is that, in many such cases, democracy is, in fact, first corrupted to some degree. I recently came upon the 1938 German ballot, which you can see for yourself here on Wikipedia. The ballot asks:

Do you agree with the reunification of Austria with the German Empire that was enacted on 13 March 1938, and do you vote for the party of our leader Adolf Hitler?

The large circle says “yes”, while the comparatively tiny circle next to it says “no.” Democracy in action, eh? Now, Hitler initially came to power in 1933, and did have upwards of 30% of the vote at that time, so this isn’t exactly the reason why Hitler came to power. But it’s still interesting to note!

And on a completely different note (this juxtaposition is only about interesting election tidbits), Bob Gibbons, head of the Massachusetts Hospital Association, argues in a Boston Globe editorial, that a new bill going through Congress and another going through the Massachusetts House threaten the secret ballot of Union elections, thus coercing employees to vote for a particular Union who may not, in the end, truly represent the employees. This is fascinating, but it is especially interesting to see Bob begin with:

We wouldn’t think about holding an election for any office, from school committee to president of the United States, without the protection of a secret ballot.

Well…… we only started thinking about it in 1892, really, which is important to note. And because of the recent evolution of state election laws, we do have 40+% of Californians, 50+% of Washingtonians, and 100% of Oregonians voting by mail, which does amount, in fact, to “holding an election without the protection of a secret ballot.”

Of course, I’m not arguing against the Secret Ballot. I think it’s a wonderful and necessary thing. But we need to be aware that there’s a serious effort in this country to undermine the secret ballot, sometimes consciously, sometimes not. The secret ballot is not so natural anymore. We need to realize how crazy this mail-in voting tendency is becoming, and how dramatically bad the situation may get if we don’t stop for a moment to think about what happens when your spouse, your parent, your church, your union, your office, can ask you how you voted, lean over your shoulder and check, organize some kind of “ballot filling-out party”, or find some other subtle way to coerce you.

The secret ballot is a crucial piece of our democracy, and too many people, not just the unions, have forgotten it.

10 thoughts on “Voting: Things are Not Always What They Seem

  1. Now I’m not sure that “voting by mail, which does amount, in fact, to ‘holding an election without the protection of a secret ballot'” is a wholly accurate statement. Even if you argue that remote voting offers the potential for the loss of the protection of a secret ballot, their is no prerequisite to waive anonymity and they are hardly analogous.

    Since you brought up union elections and that “Things are Not Always What They Seem,” in the world of union elections there is often significant pressure on voters (read coercion) at the polls. Remote voting can actually be used as a tool to reduce this.

  2. Now I’m not sure that “voting by mail, which does amount, in fact, to ‘holding an election without the protection of a secret ballot'” is a wholly accurate statement. Even if you argue that remote voting offers the potential for the loss of the protection of a secret ballot, their is no prerequisite to waive anonymity and they are hardly analogous.

    Since you brought up union elections and that “Things are Not Always What They Seem,” in the world of union elections there is often significant pressure on voters (read coercion) at the polls. Remote voting can actually be used as a tool to reduce this.

  3. I forgot to add an additional comment to the “Things are Not Always What They Seem” discussion. If I remember correctly you have dual AmericanFrench citizenship, yes? In the French system, proxy voting is often allowed. Arguably proxy voting can be susceptible to the same level of coercion as remote voting. By your definition this could be an example of “holding an election without the protection of a secret ballot” without remote voting.

  4. I forgot to add an additional comment to the “Things are Not Always What They Seem” discussion. If I remember correctly you have dual AmericanFrench citizenship, yes? In the French system, proxy voting is often allowed. Arguably proxy voting can be susceptible to the same level of coercion as remote voting. By your definition this could be an example of “holding an election without the protection of a secret ballot” without remote voting.

  5. Chris,

    Indeed the French proxy vote is worrisome to me, and it would be wise to study how often it is used, and what potential for coercion there is. I believe that the proxy vote reduces ballot secrecy significantly.

    To your earlier point: I would argue that the situation described in the article, where a union member is asking you to endorse the union in person, is quite analogous to the remote voting scenario, where a spouse or other family member may coerce you. Of course it would be worse if the New York Times published your name and vote for all to see, but that’s not the point here.

    The point is that subtle coercion is *really* bad, and it can significantly affect the result of an election. Most people don’t understand that “the secret ballot” means the “incoercible ballot,” nor do they understand how important that concept is. The words “waive anonymity” in your statement are relevant here: the secret ballot is not about the voter’s *choice* to vote anonymously, it’s about the voter being *forced* to vote anonymously.

    On the continuum between perfect incoercibility and fully public ballots, I suspect most people think remote voting is not quite as good as perfect incoercibility, but it’s definitely closer to it than to fully public ballots. I believe remote voting is much, much closer to fully public ballots, and thus that it presents a real danger.

  6. Chris,

    Indeed the French proxy vote is worrisome to me, and it would be wise to study how often it is used, and what potential for coercion there is. I believe that the proxy vote reduces ballot secrecy significantly.

    To your earlier point: I would argue that the situation described in the article, where a union member is asking you to endorse the union in person, is quite analogous to the remote voting scenario, where a spouse or other family member may coerce you. Of course it would be worse if the New York Times published your name and vote for all to see, but that’s not the point here.

    The point is that subtle coercion is *really* bad, and it can significantly affect the result of an election. Most people don’t understand that “the secret ballot” means the “incoercible ballot,” nor do they understand how important that concept is. The words “waive anonymity” in your statement are relevant here: the secret ballot is not about the voter’s *choice* to vote anonymously, it’s about the voter being *forced* to vote anonymously.

    On the continuum between perfect incoercibility and fully public ballots, I suspect most people think remote voting is not quite as good as perfect incoercibility, but it’s definitely closer to it than to fully public ballots. I believe remote voting is much, much closer to fully public ballots, and thus that it presents a real danger.

  7. Pingback: Harvard’s Ben Adida on Vote By Mail and the Secret Ballot « The No Vote By Mail Project

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