Modern day Americans probably give little or no thought at all to the history of the secret ballot. Many of us may believe that the secret, government provided, uniform ballot has been present in the United States ever since the founding of the Republic. Regardless of today’s voting method, we voters take for granted that, for the most part, our votes have always been private and accurately tallied. This idealized view is innaccurate.
The modern ballot, upon which every eligible candidate from every recognized political party, for every single electable office is listed, is actually a fairly recent invention. In the early days of modern democracy, such as found in the United States and other non-monarchial nations, voters had to provide their own ballots. Most people had to write out their choices on their own scraps of paper, or later, clip out of newspapers. Sometimes they received ballots from campaigners at the polls. Frequently, political parties printed their own ballots on colored paper.
None of the old ways were truly secret nor had any effective measures of oversight. Powerful people, like employers could supervise the voting places and easily make note of how people voted. The same for political bosses, who frequently “bought” votes from the citizens. A party boss would see if you actually cast your vote in favor of the candidate or issue for which you were paid. You can imagine the level of influence that was present on election day.
Even in ancient times, the much touted democracy of Athens was not secret. Eligible voters were non-slave, propertied males born to two Athenian-born parents. The voting took place at a public assembly during which orators attempted to persuade their fellow citizens. The act of voting was done by show of hands. According to Aristophanes, voting “must be done, and the arm shown naked to the shoulder in order to vote.”
The basic method for voting in the ancient Roman Republic was similarly done in a public forum. The difference being that voter eligibility depended upon which tribes were authorized to attend the public forum.
The onset of voting in the manner we think of today, came about with the advent of universal male suffrage in France in 1848. The voters were required to hand-write the name of their chosen candidate on white paper, only, at home or receive a ballot distributed on the street. The ballot was folded to provide privacy, then it was deposited in a locked collecting box.
On February 7, 1856, the colonial Tasmanian Parliament enacted the Electoral Act of 1856 that required elections to be held by means of a secret ballot. This was the second official legislative requirement for a secret ballot. It was specifically designed to minimize and eliminate the blatant intimidation of voters that routinely happened during other voting systems in other democratic nations.
Reasons given for Tasmania’s and soon afterwards, other southern Australian states’ invention of their type of secret ballot was the prior corrupt, intimidating nature of the Australian political system. The system suffered many inequities that frequently led to violence. To address the serious problems, the Tasmanian parliament designed a new system from the ground up and after some adjustments, came to be known as the “Australian Ballot”.
The main features were:
1. The printing of ballots by the state, not privately nor by political parties.
2. The listing of all the candidates’ names
3. Distribution of the ballots could take place only at the polling places.
4. Secrecy was required by providing an enclosed voting booth and curtain. Ballots were covered in a “jacket” and placed in a locked ballot box.
The new measures were a vast improvement over the previous traditional public voting practices. While the secret ballot greatly cut down on the most blatant violence and corruption around voting, there were still problems like ballot stuffing, dead people and dogs voting. Further regulation and oversight soon mostly eliminated those problems, too.
Meantime, in the United States, political machines were a big nuisance in the electoral process. Most infamous was William “Boss” Tweed the head of the notorious New York City “machine”, Tammany Hall. The New York machine, and similar groups in other cities were able to consolidate their power by being able to direct the working-class votes. To make sure the masses voted for the wishes of the machines, thugs were employed, who threatened voters with violence if they didn’t vote the “right” way.
Tammany Hall was able to easily control voters with threats because votes were cast on colored, party printed ballots. Those ballots were then deposited into glass boxes or spheres. The thugs were positioned around the polling places so they could easily see who placed any “wrong” colored ballots into the boxes. Not only did Tammany and other machines punish non-complying voters with violence, they also made sure that voters and their family members were fired from public jobs and that charity would be withheld from them.
Progressives and reformers took immediate note of the Australian Ballot and its success in Australia and Britain and began to advocate for a complete remaking of voting technology to revive American democracy. The most liberal progressives saw that adoption of the Australian Ballot would free voters from the violence and overt corruption present around elections. There would be fewer cases of landlords evicting tenants because the renters couldn’t be singled out by public balloting. Employers wouldn’t be able to oversee the voting of their employees.
Soon after the US election of 1884, most states had adopted the Australian Ballot. Massachusetts was the first state to do so and Kentucky was the last hold out of oral ballots. All of the states had converted to the Australian Ballot by 1891. The first US President to be completely elected by the Australian Ballot was Grover Cleveland in 1892.
Shortcomings of the secret ballot, like vote buying, were finally addressed by 1925 with strong measures against voter corruption. Presently, American elections are held by the Australian Ballot. The exception being absentee or mail-in ballots which violates the standards of balloting and polling at only the polling place.
With the advent of new technologies, especially electronic voting, come new, more difficult breaches of privacy. There are still many questions about privacy issues and the ease in which to alter vote totals surrounding electronic voting practices. We have yet to effectively eliminate voting fraud in the newest voting technology. So there is still the conundrum of true secrecy and accuracy in secret balloting.
There are now some political parties in a few nations questioning the wisdom of the secret ballot. The weaknesses of electronic voting are very troubling to them. Some of the parties are calling for a return to the open ballot.
It will be interesting to see how our desire for instant vote tallies and the problem of electronic fraud will be resolved. I’m thinking that preservation of the paper Australian Ballot as a back-up to e-voting is the smartest move, for now.
The Blue Jay of Happiness likes this observation from Isaac Asimov. “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’.”