[Continuing our series on deception in politics and public policy.]
“Today the practice of casting secret ballots is so commonplace that most voters would not consider that any other method might be used.” – Wikipedia
Well, not anymore, if the Progressives have their way.
In three states (Washington, Oregon, and Colorado), the secret ballot has been abolished, and it’s barely surviving in a number of other states.
Washington, Oregon, and Colorado have a system of universal mail-out voting. Every voter gets a ballot in the mail—at least, that’s what’s supposed to happen—and every voter returns his or her ballot by mail. There is absolutely no protection if your employer, an official of your union, your preacher, someone from the department of welfare, or a member of your family demands that you vote in front of him or her or that you sign and mail the ballot after it’s been marked “for” you. Or, for that matter, if vote harvesters show up at your door to “help” you vote.
Even in democracies, the secret ballot was not always guaranteed. In the early days of the United States, elections were often conducted publicly, such as by voice vote or by the distribution by political parties of pre-printed ballots that voters would stuff into ballot boxes. Eventually, the principles of the secret ballot (the “Australian ballot”) were established: the use of official ballots, distributed only at polling places, which voters would mark in secret to conceal their selections. Usually, the ballots would be folded and placed in closed boxes.
Later, these principles were adapted for voting machines. In the case of voting machines with levers, for example, a voter would go behind a curtain to pull individual levers to indicate his or her choices, then pull a master lever to cast those votes. Pulling the master lever would cause the smaller levers to snap back into their original position, thus protecting the voter’s privacy.
The secret ballot was one of the great democratic reforms, adopted mainly during the 19th Century. It protects people from being punished for their votes, and protects society from those who would sell their votes or otherwise be rewarded. If anyone pressures you to vote as you’re told, you can agree to do so—and then do the exact opposite.
In France, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte attempted to abolish the secret ballot for an 1851 plebiscite, but he was forced by public opposition to back down. Britain guaranteed the right to a secret ballot in 1872. In the U.S., the states adopted the Australian ballot, also known as the Massachusetts ballot, between 1884 and 1891. The United Nations effectively recognized it as a human right when it wrote a secret-ballot guarantee into its 2008 convention on the rights of the disabled.
So-called Progressives, however, have been pushing for vote-by-mail as part of their overall effort to “lower barriers to voting”—so-called barriers such as having a single Election Day (which, for presidential elections, is in the Constitution, although judges have ignored that fact) so that voters’ choices come out of a common pool of information, and requiring that people actually show up at the polls so that their secret-ballot right can be protected.
In 1972, less than five percent of U.S. voters used absentee ballots. In this election, that number will exceed 20 percent nationally. In states such as Arizona and California, most ballots will be mailed in, and, as noted, Washington, Oregon, and Colorado use a 100% by-mail system (all mail-in, plus stations where you can turn in the ballots that were mailed to you). The adoption of all-by-mail is a trend that could soon spread to states from Arizona to New Jersey.
When I was working as a political reporter or campaign manager, the rule-of-thumb in politics was that an election was considered highly questionable if more than 10 percent of ballots were cast absentee.
Here’s what was reported in 2012 by Sarah Jane Capper and Michael Ciaglo of News21, a journalism project of the left-wing Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation:
Election fraud is rare, but it usually involves absentee or mail ballots, said Paul Gronke, a Reed College political scientist, who directs the Early Voting Information Center in Oregon. He cites what he calls a classic example of election fraud, a local official stealing votes by filling out absentee ballots. That was the case in Lincoln County, W.Va., where the sheriff and clerk pleaded guilty to distributing absentee ballots to unqualified voters and helping mark them during a 2010 Democratic primary.
Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, said vote-buying and bribery could occur more easily with mail voting and absentee voting. At a polling place, someone who bribed voters would have no way to verify that the bribe worked. A person who bribes mail voters could watch as they mark ballots or even mark ballots for them.
Gans also points to the potential to influence voters in gatherings that some call ballot-signing parties. A caregiver could mark a dependent’s ballot.
“All the other types of fraud are essentially hard to do and easy to defend against,” Gans said. “This isn’t.”
Outright election fraud is rare in relation to the total number of votes, it’s true. But that doesn’t diminish its significance; only a few hundred fake votes was sufficient in 2006 to put Al Franken in the U.S. Senate, where he later cast the deciding vote for Obamacare, and an additional 533 fake votes in 2000 would have made Al Gore president.
Nevertheless, I think that most of the concern over vote fraud is misplaced. Legislators and political activists across the country have tried to use voter ID laws to prevent fraudulent voting and protect the right to vote, on the ground that each illegal vote cancels out the voting rights of a real voter. Although voter impersonation does happen, most vote fraud occurs in the counting of votes or in the abuse of absentee voting, such as when people are intimidated into attending voting parties at churches or union halls where people watch how they vote, or when ballot harvesters or boleteros come into the picture. (More on them in a later column.)
Those who focus exclusively on voter ID, while ignoring the danger from mail-in balloting, are missing the Big Picture: that more and more Americans are being denied their right to a secret ballot.