Indisputable Elections: Ending Secret Ballots

Trust is essential to allow a democracy to function. We trust that when we cast a ballot, our vote will be reviewed and counted correctly. The ballot counter trusts that the person who filled out the ballot is a registered voter. We have no way of knowing if our ballot was ever counted. We trust that the system will work and the individuals staffing the polls will be competent and faithful to their duties. At the end of the election process, we trust that the candidate with the most votes will win and hold office.

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President Trump has sowed mistrust that has already undermined the entire democratic election process by eroding this trust. He has said that our election will be rigged, mail-in ballots are fraudulent, and he will not accept the results if he loses. He has stated that the election should be delayed.

These statements cause the entire chain of trust in the election process to unravel. Once we doubt the legitimacy of the system, we have no assurance of its rightful outcome. Even questioning the validity of the Presidential election’s outcome now shows that trust has been lost and public faith in the integrity of the results is already compromised.

We can’t restore trust in our election system because it’s a system that has no assurances or accountability. We cast anonymous ballots. We have no way of knowing that our vote was counted or challenging that it was recorded incorrectly. There are no confirmation codes or tracking numbers. Every other action in our daily life — mailing a package, paying a bill, buying a coffee, talking to customer service — generates a receipt and tracking number. These numbers are proof of what action transpired. Why is it that with something as critical to democracy as voting, we do not have the accountability we expect from every other transaction?

Not only was there historically no expectation of privacy for voters, voting in secret was considered to be against the principles of democracy. “The underlying reasons began with the idea that voting should not be an expression of private interests or beliefs.”

The first paper ballots were actually used as a system of voter discrimination and control. “Voters deposited paper tickets in a public ballot box, often a glass globe or jar. Printed and distributed by the political parties, the tickets listed the party’s candidates by office and were easily distinguished by color and markings for the benefit of the political operatives who kept tabs on who voted and how.” A paper ballot requires literacy to understand how to vote. In the late 1800’s, paper ballots were actually a way to inhibit the ability of newly freed African Americans and low-income immigrants from voting on their own.

Believe it or not, there is nothing in The Constitution that mandates casting secret ballots or hiding the identity of each voter. For the first four centuries of our nation’s history, votes were cast publicly. “From colonial times through the 1880s, votes were cast orally. This method of voting, called viva voce — literally, “with the living voice” — was how George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln would have voted, and were themselves voted into office.” The Constitution only prescribes that elections must be held and each state must create laws to govern them.

Section. 4.

The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of chusing Senators.

Solution is Transparency

We need to vote publicly instead of casting secret ballots. Publishing the name and vote of every citizen who casts a ballot on a public website so that everyone can see the valid results of the election. Listing each name ensures accountability. If your vote does not appear on the website or has been recorded incorrectly, there would be a review period before the results are finalized. If you see a vote cast by someone who is dead, you can flag that vote for review. Transparency is the only option when our trust in confidentiality has been eroded.

Someone who is not willing to publicly share who they voted for calls into question why they are casting that vote in the first place. Politicians who do not represent the values of America—a nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal — continue to occupy political offices because their anonymous voters remain hidden as closeted racists and sexists. Anonymous voting allows men to vote for misogynists without being accountable to their wives, sisters, daughters, and mothers. Anonymous voting allows whites to elect bigots without being accountable to their black and brown coworkers, neighbors, and friends.

If you feel discriminated against by your supervisor or union rep for how you voted, you have the evidence of exactly how they voted to use in your defense. If you are concerned that who you voted for will keep you from getting a job or being admitted to a university, it’s worth examining why supporting that candidate would be opposed by these institutions. What is it about the organization that aligns or conflicts with your values? Why would your vote change how they think about you as a prospective employee or student. If you fear being ostracized by your neighbors and community, why exactly would you support a candidate that so many others oppose? What is that candidate doing to help or hurt your neighbors? Why would you be ashamed of your support for someone who they oppose? Public voting forces each of us to be accountable for our voting decisions and the social consequences of these actions.

If you don’t like who either candidate is or what they represent, it might be better not to vote. If you don’t feel comfortable putting your name on either candidate, you have the option to not vote, or to write-in someone who you feel is more qualified. Voting is a right, not a requirement. If you don’t like either candidate, why would you vote for one of them?

A democracy cannot function without elections and these elections cannot function when public trust in the election system has been lost. That trust has been eroded by President Trump and cannot be restored because our system of anonymous voting provides us with no assurance that our vote was counted correctly. We have the power to fix this catastrophe by returning to public voting. Every citizens vote can appear online giving each of us to power to ensure that our vote was cast and counted correctly. This transparency provides indisputable evidence of who wins the election.

Secret ballots have allowed Americans to cast votes for candidates who will publicly promote racism and misogyny, while these voters would be ashamed to display it themselves. Secret ballots have been a tool to oppress minority and low-income voters. Most of all, secret ballots have allowed citizens not to be responsible for the consequences of their voting decisions. The secret ballot “transformed America’s Election Day by privatizing, but also bureaucratizing, sanitizing, and individualizing what had once been a dramatic public event.”

The only way to prevent a contested 2020 election (that may devolve into civil war) is to show how each and every American voted. We have 96 days to save our democratic election process. Casting a vote is a responsibility and we each must carry that burden by writing our name next to the candidate who we vote for to preserve our democracy.

David Riedman is Ph.D. student in Criminology at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. He is a co-founder of the Center for Homeland Defense and Security’s Advanced Thinking and Experimentation (HSx) Program at the Naval Postgraduate School.

Homeland Security Researcher at the Naval Postgraduate School and Ph.D. student at University of Hawai’i

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