Should AB 1494 become law allowing voters to disclose voluntarily how they voted it would reverse the protections of a secret ballot, an important tool of democratic elections. Author Marc Levine (D-Greenbrae) and supporters argue that the voluntary disclosure is a First Amendment issue. Indeed, any citizen can now say how they vote. But, the bill’s origins have to do with providing documented proof, using photos on social media, that a voter fulfilled his or her civic responsibility. Like other practices in our social media age that seem to roil civil society, the act of documenting a vote is a bridge too far into the land where coercion is a danger.
California has long had provisions to protect secret ballots. Article II, Section 7 of the state constitution may be the document’s shortest section. It reads in total: “Voting shall be secret.” Laws prohibiting voters to show the content of their marked ballots have been on the books since 1891. Significantly, only three years after Kentucky became the first state to adopt the so-called Australian ballot, the first place to use government sanctioned secret ballots.
The rise of the secret ballot occurred because the old way of voting lead to intimidation of some voters. Openly marked ballots, colored ballots representing different candidates for office, and glass ballot bowls made a voter’s preference easily discernable. This led to intimidation from interests that wanted to control government, none more recognizable than the legendary New York political Tammany Hall kingpin, Boss Tweed.
As the website, In the Past Lane, explains it, “To ensure the masses voted “the right way,” Tammany employed legions of “shoulder hitters” (thugs who threatened voters with violence if they failed to vote for Tammany) to ensure that men voted for the machine. Because voters deposited colored ballots (to distinguish between the parties) and deposited them in glass spheres, shoulder hitters could easily spot any transgressors. Tammany punished wayward voters not only with violence, but also by firing them (or their family members) from public jobs or withholding charity from them.”
How might the intimidation of more than a century ago apply today? History tends to repeat itself. Groups that want to control the government agenda by propping up a hand picked candidate or support a ballot proposition could pressure voters, especially those they have influence over, to record their vote and show it.
Like the voters of the Tammany era, today’s voter, too could be coerced. Union colleagues could make teachers uncomfortable; club or association members could be shunned; actors could lose roles. Keeping the vote secret protects an individual’s privacy, is a defense against intimidation and a shield for democracy.
The secret ballot came about around the same time as primary elections and the initiative and referendum, all designed to enhance democracy.
Gov. Brown should veto AB 1494.
Political Cartoonist Thomas Nast took on Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall. Here the Boss stands next to a glass ballot box making sure the vote goes, as he wants.