The Secret Ballot and the Decline in Voting

Secret balloting has decreased voter particpation since the country was founded. Can this be reversed?

I suspect that almost everyone who goes to the polls these days and marks their government-issued ballot thinks that this type of voting was always the case.  In fact, the founding fathers never anticipated secret- ballot voting.

From our country’s inception, it was believed that voting would be a public event.  Voters were to be white male land-owners who were presumed to vote for the “best” candidate and would do so publically.  Eligible voters would attend elections and show their choices by lining up physically on a side of the room to endorse one candidate or another or raise their hands publically in support of a  candidate.    It was considered cowardly and underhanded to not express your choice in public.  Turnout was very high and the occasions were ones of public celebrations.

Almost inevitably, this kind of public balloting led to abuses – people bribed or intimidated to support one candidate or another.  In addition to attending public meetings  as described, elections in the early 1800’s also  featured voters going to the polls with their own ballot or being given one at the polls by a partisan supporter of one candidate.  All was done in the public presence. This, in fact, created a very high turnout of voters as everyone was expected to make a choice and be known for their public choice.  It also, of course, led to abuses.

A federal law of 1792 established a time frame for voting for President – basically from November to December.  Since ours was an agrarian society, this was
following the harvest and before harsh winter. Since early votes in some states could affect later votes in others, in 1845, Congress set the first Tuesday in November (but never November 1) as the uniform date for Election Day.  Even so, public voting continued to be the case.   During these years, and to address the influences of  bribery in voting, the idea of a government- issued  secret
ballots came into play. First introduced in Australia in the 1850’s, Massachusetts
became the first state to have the secret ballot. The first Presidential election to be conducted totally by secret, government-provided ballots, was in
1892 when Grover Cleveland was elected.

An interesting thing has happened since secret balloting became the norm – public participation has dropped off.  In 1892 80% of the population voted.  Six years later only 65%. According to the "Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns" by Sasha Issenberg, voting participation has never recovered, being only around 50% in 1996. Efforts have been, and are being made, to get more voting participation.

Going back to the “old days” when people wanted to see who voted and how, new
efforts are being made to coerce voters to vote by publicizing their failure to
do so.  In a Michigan experiment in 2006, a plan was proposed to let neighbors know who voted or not.  Other efforts, more subtle, experimented with letters reminding voters that whether they voted or not is a matter of public record or
even  threatening to post non-voters in a post-election newspaper article.  All of
this is meant to increase the sense of guilt in not voting.   As fewer participants increase the influence of any voter, the low voter turnout seems like a cause for concern. Are efforts such as described to increase turnout beneficial or not?

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Francis T McVetty July 15, 2012 at 09:53 PM
Ann, you can not put a gun to a person and tell them to vote. That is one of the differences between our country and others. It is bad enough we don't know if ballots that are cast by voters are valid. Very few states require voter ID's. To me our country is very foolish for NOT requiring voter ID. You need ID to buy beer, go on an airplane, drive a car, cash a check at a bank, get food stamps,and so many other things. But to vote,you don't need ID? Does that sound rather strange to you? You really can't exist in this country with out some form of ID. What is the big deal?


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