When I went to vote last week in New York City, using an absentee ballot (because I will be out of the country on election day), I had a surreal experience that was also very ordinary: I marked my ballot -- put it, as advised by the nice man behind the counter, into a sealed envelope, handed it to him and ... nothing.
That is, he looked at me quizzically as I waited. For what? I realized that in every transaction I ever had with the government, I get some kind of receipt or documentation. But I had just handed over my most precious possession, my vote, and I had nothing to show for it. No scrap of paper noting for the record what I had done, and no way to verify that what I wished to do got recorded accurately.
The fellow offered, when I expressed some wish for something like this, to use my phone camera to take a picture of me holding the sealed envelope -- for proof I had voted. Seriously.
We treat the black hole where our votes vanish as if we don't dare to validate them partly because the process is so highly mystified. One aspect of this mystification, which gatekeepers use effectively against us, is the glamour around the secret ballot. That noble "secrecy" is what keeps citizen groups from observing the vote count, demanding verification slips, and so on.
The secret vote was, in its time, a great idea. Before the secret ballot was popularized, it was standard practice to intimidate and threaten voters. But few know that America hasn't always had secret ballots. Indeed, the secret ballot didn't even originate in the US -- the system we use is known, actually, as the "Australian ballot."
The majority of US states did not move to that system -- in which publicly-provided, printed ballots with the names of the candidates are marked in secret -- until after 1884. Until 1891, indeed, Kentucky still held an "oral ballot"; and it wasn't till the election of President Grover Cleveland in 1892 that the first US president was elected entirely via secret ballot.
Why do I point this out? Because our mystification of the secret ballot is one of the strange ways in which we treat our nation's voting system with truly weird magical thinking -- much like the magical thinking (about which I have written here) that often attends global warming: a defiant, seven-year-old's refusal to connect point A and point B. By now, reams of solid reporting have documented the aberrations, high jinks, missing hard drives, voting machines that weirdly revert to one candidate, voting machines owned by friends of the candidate of one party, and other aspects of systematic corruption that attend America's voting.
The dogged and deeply patriotic Mark Crispin Miller has meticulously documented masses more of these examples -- notably in the last election in Ohio -- in his masterful Harper's essay last month, "None Dare Call It Stolen."
But this is what is weird about the way we are asked to think about the vote: as if nothing could ever ever ever go wrong with it, and as if it is crazy to entertain the notion that it might. To even raise the issue, with solid documentation, as many reporters and citizens have found out, is to risk immediate mockery -- as Miller notes, citing 2004 headlines: "Election Paranoia Surfaces: Conspiracy Theorists Call Results Rigged," chuckled the Baltimore Sun on 5 November; "Internet Buzz on Vote Fraud is Dismissed," proclaimed the Boston Globe on 10 November; "Latest Conspiracy Theory -- Kerry Won -- Hits the Ether," the Washington Post chortled on 11 November.
Meanwhile, solid reporting on the war on voting, and on the corruption of the voting infrastructure, continues to mount, as in the Rolling Stone piece this summer on the GOP's "war on voting." and the Huffington Post notes the eyebrows raised when a pro-Romney company buys a stake in the company that makes the machines that count our votes.
Well, as a student of closing societies, I can tell you that it is crazy to ask Americans to have pure faith that the system is incorruptible, and to ask them to just drop their votes into a black hole and trust in the Lord -- or Diebold. If you look at weak democracies, the oligarchies that have taken undue control of them always seek to tamper with the vote. It is important for oligarchs to have elections to give their guy a veneer of legitimacy -- and important for the vote always to turn out "their way." Indeed, something that is never reported in major news media here is that former President Carter's voting accountability organization sees America's system as relatively flawed and corrupted compared with the systems of many other nations. That is a situation that would typically bring observers from aid organizations like his to our polling places to help us count our vote. (See what happened to foreign poll observers in Miller's Harpers story who tried to watch the vote in America.)
Here is my modest proposal: let us end the secret ballot, because we have reached a point, with the internet, in which transparency and accountability is more important than absolute secrecy. Don't panic, because this is what I mean: your vote won't be publicly available, but why can't I get a number when I hand in my ballot, or when I vote in a machine -- just as I do with bloodwork, or computer passwords, or other transactions in which I get accountability, but not disclosure of my actual name? Then, the votes get tallied and posted -- with their corresponding numbers -- online on a public site, and major media reproduce the lists. And I can check my number (unidentifiable to anyone else) to check whether my vote was correctly registered.
This would allow, in one sweep, all citizens to watch the watchers. It does not compel anyone to reveal his or her vote -- but gives him or her the option of challenging a discrepancy, and the means to verify what he or she had actually intended to do. And in one easy, inexpensive, technically feasible gesture, it takes the power away from the Diebold-type private corporations and the various parties and the officials, and allows actual verification that cannot be spun or falsified. Most important, it removes a psychological blinder, which the American people are asked to wear every two and four years -- the blinder that infantilizes us; that has highly interested individuals and groups say to us, "we are impartial, this is a magically noble and incorruptible process: trust us."
As President Ronald Reagan put it in another context: sure -- trust, but verify.