The Sanctity of the Secret Ballot

“Repealing a right to secret ballots, long con­sidered fundamental to democratic culture, would be a radical act.”

-George Will

Over the weekend, I participated in an election of an official. Each of the electors was handed a paper ballot, given a moment to fill it out, and place it in a box. When all the ballots were cast, they were tabulated by moderators, and observers appointed by each candidate were on hand to make certain that the count was accurate. In my lifetime I’ve voted dozens of times, but I’ve never once taken this opportunity or the method of the secret ballot for granted.

The vote I cast last weekend was done on behalf of those who I represent. It was an election for a new political party leader. But secret ballots are used in many different capacities. About every 2 years you have the opportunity to cast a secret ballot to elect any number of legislators, executives, and even judges. The secret ballot has definitely long been considered to be the bedrock of our elections.

Unfortunately, there are a couple of places in which the secret ballot is suddenly being condemned – mostly by people who are too stupid to have more than a couple of coherent thoughts in a day. Some people really are educated beyond their level of intelligence.

One place is with the workplace concerning labor unions. It’s not a secret that a labor union coming into the workplace can be a very divisive issue. People who are outspoken against these unions are often harassed, coerced, and threatened by pro-union forces. So when it is time for employees to cast their vote, it really is much safer for those opposed to unions to cast a secret ballot. There is no pressure on the voter – at least so long as he/she chooses to keep silent on the matter.

The other arena in which the secret ballot is being challenged is in politics. Now, keep in mind that the votes taken regarding legislation are public information. If you want to know how your senator, representative, committeeman, or alderman cast a vote regarding a new tax, there are numerous online outlets to find it. Sunshine laws at every level of government require that this type of vote is public.

But passing legislation is not the only type of vote in which these lawmakers participate.

Most of these organizations also elect a body of leaders from within the group. For example, the state legislative body in your state probably has a ‘speaker’ or ‘president’ of the house/senate. The members of the body elect these, and other, leaders. It’s these elections for leadership that some would like to see be made public.

So why don’t we just shoot these lawmakers in the foot instead? It would be painful immediately but would eventually subside – unlike public votes for leadership!

I’ve dabbled in politics for years and one of the truths that I learned very early on was that these people take votes VERY seriously, especially when it is a vote by a colleague against them. When my favorite elected official decided to run against the speaker of the house several years ago, not only did he lose, he was removed from committee positions, his bills were overlooked, and he was even assigned to a very small office (that he still has!)! Anyone who had openly voted for him was excoriated and had a great deal of trouble passing one of their bills that year.

Ok, so they take their hazing and life goes on, right? WRONG!

I fully expect my legislators to run bills on my behalf. There are laws that I want to see passed and I rely on them to do that. But a legislator who is being ignored for publicly voting against those in authority over them has little chance of passing a law unless it is really very good. If it’s just a bill that would affect only a small demographic of voters, it may never see the light of day – or a committee room for that matter.

It is for this reason that the votes lawmakers cast regarding leadership within their organization must be kept secret. After the election is over and the leaders are in place, legislators must have a positive working relationship with those in charge. Without it, they are rendered ineffective and will have great difficulties in doing the job which they were elected to do. It may sound childish and foolish, but it is very real.

The person for whom I voted last weekend did not win. Even though it was a secret ballot election, the gentleman who did win was fairly certain of those delegates who would be voting for him well in advance of the election. He knew I would not be one of those votes for him. Consequently, he never bothered to contact me prior to the election to ask for my vote and he has not even sent an email since then. The only time he’s spoken directly to me at all was to shake my hand just prior to the vote.

Because I want to do my job well, I’m going to have to form a good relationship to him. My congratulatory card is already in the mail. Since he was able to ascertain that he did not have my vote, I’m in an uphill climb to reach out to him and develop the conditions we need to work with one another. Ultimately, I will need this relationship to accomplish the things I will need done on behalf of my constituents.

If it’s this difficult when the vote was by secret ballot (and he really can only suspect who cast a vote for and against him), how much more difficult would it be if I’d had to stand and announce my vote publicly?

The secret ballot is sacred. While there is a time and place for all elected leaders to be open and honest about their record, and there are numerous sources to find out how a lawmaker cast their votes, sometimes it is in their best interest, as well as the best interest of those they represent, to keep it a secret.

~Temerity Dowell

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