Secret Ballot

The Secret Ballot: A Change in Political Paradigm

Stephen McAvene, December 2014

Voting rights in the United States have expanded since the establishment of the Constitution and along with this expansion there have been necessary changes in the mechanisms of the voting process. The adoption of the Australian ballot system in the late nineteenth century is one of the most important changes implemented in the democratic machinery that drives the Republic. The Australian system empowered voters in two distinct ways. First, it eliminated coercion and stymied corruption at the ballot box by standardizing ballots, by allowing citizens to vote in secret. Second, it gave voters a choice between individual candidates for each position, as opposed to the limited choice between parties that was prevalent prior to the implementation of the Australian system.

By the late 19th century, the United States had granted the right to vote to all adult male citizens. The definition of who was a citizen had been set by the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States”[1]. This Amendment defined not only who were citizens, but also defined how the individual States could treat those citizens. In large part aimed at granting equality and citizenship to newly freed African Americans in the post-Civil War southern states, this Amendment would also serve to grant equality at the ballot box to the working class. This expansion of political enfranchisement allowed the working class to cast votes alongside the landed gentry and business owners who had previously held a near monopoly on voting through the now eliminated property and or wealth holding requirements. Furthermore, over the same period of time there was a great influx of immigrants into the United States, substantially increasing the number of working class citizens who were now enfranchised. This large mass of potential voters was in sharp contrast to the limited body that had the privilege one hundred years before, a body that was kept intentionally small through economic requirements for voting. This was a sociopolitical legacy of the British origins of the United States, as the economic qualification of the right to vote stemmed from the words of William Blackstone, an Englishman, who wrote in his 1766 Commentaries on the Laws of England,
“As to the qualifications of the electors. The true reason of requiring any qualification, with regard to property, in voters, is to exclude such persons as are in so mean a situation that they are esteemed to have no will of their own. If these persons had votes, they would be tempted to dispose of them under some undue influence or other. This would give a great, an artful, or a wealthy man, a larger share in elections than is consistent with general liberty.” [2]
In other words, he saw that if citizens who were not economically independent had the right to vote, their vote could be bought, coerced, or cajoled by a wealthy or more powerful or influential person or group. The political machines that were assembled and run by the political duopoly of the Democratic Party and the Republican Party helped prove Blackstone to be prophetic.

Prior to the adoption of the Australian system, the voting process was dominated by the political parties. While there had been changes in the political landscape over time, by the late 19th century, politics had settled into a two party system composed of Democrats on one side and Republicans on the other. The key factor for both parties was control of the actual physical ballot. Each party printed its own distinctive ballot to be used by the voter. For example, one party would use red paper to print their ballots, while the other would use blue. While voters did not stand up and announce their vote to their fellow citizens and vote counters, they announced their vote whether they wanted to do so or not, simply by the color of the ballot they put into the box. While in Colonial America, votes were cast publicly, they were also cast by citizens who had, in theory, sufficient economic means to vote of their own free will as opposed to being bribed or coerced. As voting expanded, the parties devised this system to control voters of few means and they were successful. As S.J. Akerman wrote in the November 1998 issue of the Smithsonian Magazine, “This method as well as the ward bosses who used it thrived because district ballot designs made secrecy impossible.” [3] By essentially creating a system of public voting through control of the form of the ballot, the two parties and their political machines were able to unduly influence voters.

A voting citizen could be bought, bribed to vote for one party or the other. A citizen could be coerced in the same fashion, by an employer for example, who would have observers at the voting places to see that his employees voted the way they were instructed. As noted by Eldon Cobb Evans in his 1917 A History of the Australian Ballot System in the United States, “Frequently the owner and manager of the mill stood at the entrance of the polling place and closely observed the employees as they voted. In this condition, it cannot be said that the workingmen exercised any real choice.” [4]. If they were observed voting for the other party, easily done with a color coded or otherwise distinctive ballot, they could and would find their employment terminated. Bribery and coercion were outlawed in the individual states, and the colonies that preceded them [5], but that did not stop political parties from attempting to influence voters through economic means. These actions bear out Blackstone’s words from 1766, giving undue influence to a political party or an employer giving them “a larger share in elections than is consistent with general liberty.” [6].

Adopting the Australian ballot system put an end to this form of influence by taking the ballot out of the hands of the parties and putting it in the hands of the government. This effectively ended the ability to buy and sell votes and for voters to be coerced into voting a particular way, by making secret ballots the standard. Massachusetts was the first state to adopt the Australian system, in 1888. The next year, 1889, nine more states joined Massachusetts. By the Presidential election of 1892, 38 states had changed to the new secret voting method [7], in an effort to end the corruption that had become rampant over the political landscape.

While the catalyst of the change was ostensibly to reform the decaying voting system, it also made a subtler impact, a change in the design of the ballot. Previously, voters had to choose the ballot from one party or another, limiting them in each election race to the candidates from either party for each contended office, they could not vote for a Democrat for Senate and a Republican for President, they were forced to vote a straight party ballot, or ticket, in the vernacular. The example of the ballot in Figure 1 shows this clearly, the ballot itself is the choice, a choice of Party not individual candidates.

Figure 1: 1870 ballot from Massachusetts
Figure 1: 1870 ballot from Massachusetts [8].

When the ballot became the responsibility of the government it fell to it to present not only each party but each candidate for each office on the ballot. This change led to further empowerment of the voter. With the change a voter could now not only cast his vote in secret without the economic pressures of bribery and coercion. He, and eventually she, had more choice for who they voted. The ballot depicted in Figure 2 shows an early example of an Australian ballot in the United States from an Iowa City municipal election.

Figure 2: 1893 Iowa City Municipal Ballot
Figure 2: 1893 Iowa City Municipal Ballot [9].

The difference from the forced straight ticket style of ballot is clear. The parties could no longer rely on their entire ticket to be elected; each candidate had to stand alone at the polls and on the ballot. However it is interesting to note that the option to vote a straight ticket is still present, a voter could choose to do so, but the difference of course was the fact that there is a choice. The parties still maintained their duopoly at the polls; however the results were no longer homogenized into one party or another, the results were a more accurate reflection of the choices made by the citizens, not by quasi-aristocratic parties who had controlled the system through nefarious means for many years.

Ballots have changed over the years since the adoption of the Australian ballot; they have become mechanized, with voting machines in some places replacing the paper ballot. However, the principle of the secret ballot still remains. In the end, William Blackstone was correct, that expansion of voting to the economically downtrodden did lead to corruption of the democratic principle through bribery or coercion, but this only held true while the mechanics of voting were public. Then and now, secrecy guarantees a voter the ability to make his choice of his own free will without direct economic duress. Expansion of choice enhanced democracy and empowered the electorate; no longer requiring blind loyalty to a particular party and their straight ticket but requiring each candidate to be chosen on their own. Adopting the Australian ballot helped to turn the tide of voter corruption and to place democracy into the hands of the people.

[1] United States of America. “The Constitution of the United States: Amendments 11-27.” Accessed October 30, 2014.
[2] William Blackstone. Commentaries on the Laws of England: A Facsimile of the First Edition of 1765—1769. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 1979.
[3] S.J. Akerman. “The Vote That Failed” Smithsonian Magazine. November 1998. Accessed October 3, 2014.
[4] Eldon Cobb Evans. A History of the Australian Ballot System in the United States. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press). 1917, 13.
[5] Cortlandt F. Bishop History of Elections in the American Colonies. (New York: Columbia University). Accessed October 6, 2014, 192-198.
[6] William Blackstone. Commentaries on the Laws of England: A Facsimile of the First Edition of 1765—1769. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 1979.
[7] S.J. Akerman “The Vote That Failed” Smithsonian Magazine. November 1998. Accessed October 3, 2014.
[8] American Antiquarian Society. “1870 Massachusetts Presidential Ballot” Accessed October 30, 2014.
[9] Douglas Jones. “Ballot1893b” (University of Iowa). Accessed October 30, 2014.

Further Reading

Andrew Gumbel, Steal this Vote: Dirty Elections and the Rotten History of Democracy in America (New York: Avalon Publishing, 2005)
Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (New York: Harper Collins, 2003)
Richard Bellamy, Citizenship: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008)

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