Should voting histories be private?

The Roanoke Times editorialized today in favor of the Know Campaign’s guilt-based GOTV campaign, and I couldn’t agree more. That was the conservative group who was looking to send out mailers telling people which of their neighbors have voted in recent elections. The SBE was upset, as were many citizens, who complained that whether or not they vote is a private matter. The group didn’t send out in the mailing, after the SBE bristled, and they’ve filed a lawsuit in the matter. The Times editorial board writes:

Maybe Virginia wants to keep those records secret. There is a good argument that whether someone chooses to vote is no one else’s business. If so, keep them secret from everyone.

There is also a good argument that they should be public. They are state records and do not reveal how someone voted, only whether someone has participated in our democracy.

The current system tries to have it both ways by elevating political parties and politicians into a class better than the rest of us. They alone may annoy residents by contacting frequent voters with polls and campaign pitches.

I think that’s absolutely right. Note, by the way, that the Times hit a nerve in early 2007 when they published a listing of every Virginian with a concealed weapons permit. While public data, and perfectly legal to reproduce, that was something that some gun owners just weren’t comfortable with having in the public eye. About the same situation that the Know Campaign has found themselves in.

Our current concept of privacy in the voting process is very new. In this country’s formative years, voting was an intensely public, social, nasty affair. Voters would go to their crowded polling place, where they were to declare loudly, for all to hear, the candidate for whom they’d be voting. The crowd might cheer or jeer them accordingly. Violence was common, and voters were expected to show courage and fortitude to get to the polls; there was no right to vote without being beaten. For most of our history, voters had to bring their own ballots. The idea of having ballots provided was seen as profoundly anti-American—voters ought to remember the names of the candidates, the logic went, and if you couldn’t spell the candidate’s name correctly, then your vote shouldn’t be counted. By the 1830s, courts had come around to the idea that it was OK for people to show up with printed ballots and submit those, and parties started printing up their own (which we now call “sample ballots”) for people to submit. Then came the movement to allow secret ballots, so that a man could cast his ballot without his preference being known. Virginia Congressman John Randolph (a Democratic-Republican, from Roanoke) objected to this proposal strenuously, arguing that it “would make any nation a nation of scoundrels, if it did not find them so.” The “Australian ballot,” as it was known—for it was invented in that country—was first adopted in the 1890s, in part a response to the widespread phenomenon of vote buying, but also as a way to keep blacks (frequently illiterate, in the south) from voting.

Should it be a secret whether or not each of us voted in a given election? I suspect that would be a bad idea, for reasons that we have not yet sufficiently considered, but I’m open to the idea that there’s some sense it. Such a change would certainly fit into the trend of the past 250 years. But there’s no argument to be made that political operatives should have access to that information, but not the unwashed masses.

For more on the history of ballots in this country, see Jill Lepore’s excellent “Rock, Paper, Scissors: How We Used to Vote,” from the October 13, 2008 New Yorker, which is my source for the information here.

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

3 replies on “Should voting histories be private?”

  1. I think I agree with you here. I see no justification for creating a preferred class of those entitled to voting information, and a lot of reasons against it. The Know Campaign’s actions may be uncomfortable to some, but the cure would be worse than the disease.

  2. How is this any different than the parties selling the information to candidates or whomever they choose?

    No different is my answer.

    It either is available to the public, or it shouldn’t be available to every person who thinks they are running for something and have the money to buy it.

  3. Tougher question, for me. But I’d prefer to reframe it (shocker). If voting info is to be available, it should be available to all. But I’m not at all persuaded that there is much evidence in favor it being available.

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