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History of the Secret Ballot Revealed

When Americans go the polls to vote on Election Day, most take it for granted that the government that provides the ballot will keep them safe as they make their choice and that their choice will be made in private, behind a partition or drawn curtains. But ballots were not always government-issued, and voting itself was once a very public act - and a potentially dangerous one. VOA's Adam Phillips reports.

Before any American election, local governments print uniform ballots or provide electronic ones, where all eligible candidates from every party, in every race, are listed. In the nation's early days, however, voters were required to provide their own ballots, which they scrawled for themselves, cut out of newspapers, or were given by partisans at the polls. Political parties often printed their own colored ballots.

According to Harvard University American history professor and author Jill Lepore, this system encouraged corruption and intimidation.

"Because if I see you at the polls and … you are bringing a blue papered ballot to vote for Smith as opposed to a green one to vote for Jones, I can know that you actually voted the way I paid you to vote," Lepore explains. "Therefore, I can buy your votes, and you can sell your votes. Or I can beat you up if you don't vote for Smith. Or, if I am your boss, I can say, 'If you don't vote for Smith, I can fire you.'"

Lepore says the process of voting in America has changed from a relatively raucous affair to the restrained, even humdrum series of events most Americans know today.

"When I go to vote in my neighborhood in Massachusetts… in my mind … it's the defining act of my citizenship, and it's thrilling," she says. "But the physical experience of it is really like running an errand to the post office."

"In contrast," Lepore adds, "during America's colonial period and well into the mid-19th century… there was a lot of drinking at the polls. There was lot debating at the polls. There was music, and there would be parades. And there could be riots."

To end the disorder and corruption often associated with elections, middle-class 19th-century reformers touted the "Australian ballot," so-called because of its adoption in 1856 in Australia. It provided for government-issued ballots to be cast in secret.

The wisdom of the Australian ballot was widely debated outside Australia.

"The prevailing assumption …was that if you wanted to hide how you were voting, it was because you were ashamed of your vote and that you were casting a selfish vote and you weren't thinking about the public good, but only of your own private interests," explains Lepore, who adds that this view was echoed during the 1850s and '60s by the British political philosopher and parliamentarian John Stuart Mill.

"He argued, 'When you vote, you should not be thinking, "Are my gas taxes going to go down? Is my mortgage rate going to go up?"' says Lepore. "Rather, you should be thinking about which of the candidates best represents the best interests of everybody, not my narrow interests.'"

Mill and other critics of the privatization of voting therefore saw a loss of public spiritedness and believed American democracy would be the poorer for it because it asked less of voters.

Lepore says that, while these arguments do make logical sense, they assume that all voters in a democratic society enjoy equal power and rank.

"If we were equal to one another, if you didn't have more money than I did, and you weren't my boss and you aren't bigger and stronger than I am, we could both go to the polls and safely vote openly," she says.

(That's one reason, for example, that U.S. senators vote openly; everyone assumes that they are of equal rank.)

"But in the real world," says Lepore, "we are not all equal. And given that everyone can vote - including very poor people - we need to protect their rights by privatizing the ballot."

In 1888, Massachusetts became first U.S. state to adopt the Australian ballot, and by the presidential election of 1896, most other states had followed suit.

Still, Lepore admits that there has been a price to pay for the orderly quiet of today's elections.

"Historians talk about what's called 'the decline of popular politics,' that this kind of working-class rowdy democracy in the 19th century really [expressed] a kind of exuberance about democracy that has been lost," she explains.

Still, Lepore notes that voting with secret ballots is now a crucial part of being a citizen in a democracy, and Americans should celebrate that they can cast their ballots without fear.