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Bring voting out of the closet
Stand by your man
One of the most profound changes in American life has been the revolution in attitudes toward gay people. It has also been one of the swiftest. And one of the simplest. To be sure, laying the groundwork for the change took decades. But once people started coming out of the closet, straight folks discovered that gay people were just like people they had known all their lives—in fact, gay people were people they had known all their lives: their doctors, dentists, aunts, uncles, cousins. Learning to treat them like other people followed rapidly.
At first glance, equal rights for gay people would seem to have nothing to do with how we count votes. In fact it does, but as a side effect of something else—namely, how we ensure accurate counts.
For the first century of politics in the American republic, voting was an open and public act. Candidates stood at the polls and voters announced their support for one or the other. In some cases they cast paper ballots that were differently colored for the different candidates. The basic principle was the same in both cases: In such an important matter affecting the common weal, voters should be accountable for their decisions.
This practice of open voting was one of the reasons Thomas Jefferson placed so much emphasis on the independence of yeomen farmers as a fundament of democracy. Freeholders owed their livelihoods to no one besides themselves; they could speak and vote their minds without fear of consequences.
And the reason open voting was abandoned in the late 19th century was precisely that voters were no longer so free of dependence on others. Workers who received a paycheck were dependent on their employers, and employers were suspected of paying attention to the voting habits of their employees. The secret ballot precluded this kind of surveillance.
But it came at a cost. Once the votes or ballots were separated from the voters, tampering with vote counts became easier. Did the number of ballots match the number of voters? It was much harder to say. And it was impossible for an individual voter to contest any specific ballot in the way a voter could when the ballot had his name on it.
Lack of confidence in vote-counting is a crisis in American politics today. That it is a manufactured crisis makes it no less dangerous. One way of remedying the problem is to return to open voting. Let each voter in a precinct receive a number, and let that number be matched with the number on the ballot the voter casts. Give the voter a printed copy of the completed ballot to take away from the poll as a receipt. Most of this is illegal now, after nearly all the states have passed voting secrecy laws. But it would make false claims of voting fraud much less plausible. And it would make actual voting fraud much less possible.
There would still be the question of retaliation against voters that prompted the adoption of secret ballots in the first place. But worker protection laws, which didn't exist in the 19th century, and which protect workers in the even more sensitive cases of campaigning for labor unions, should be sufficient to keep retaliation from being a problem.
And there would be a bonus. Democrats these days are tempted to think of Republicans as benighted tools of Donald Trump. Republicans tend to look on Democrats as socialist know-it-alls. Many of each party shudder to think of associating with members of the other.
But most do associate with members of the other party; they just don't know it. If voting came out of the closet, people might discover that Republicans and Democrats aren’t that different after all.
Don’t expect the parties to support open voting. The institutional interest of Republicans lies in demonizing Democrats, and vice versa. But as in many other cases, the simple fact that the parties oppose something suggests that it might be in the public interest.
And if open voting restores confidence in elections, all the better.