- - Tuesday, October 25, 2016


Between now and Nov. 8, Americans will be inundated with good-intentioned public service announcements urging them to take the time to vote. And to buttress that argument, statistics about the usual low turnout rate — about 60 percent or so — will suggest that this American trend is somehow illustrative of a major defect in the body politic.

But that’s not so. Unlike some other countries, the United States has no paternalistic voter registration system. In Britain, election officials are responsible for going out into the land to keep voting lists up to date. In France, elections are held on Sunday when most citizens don’t work, and Australia imposes a fine on nonvoters. More than a score of countries have compulsory voting laws. In contrast, American states pay little heed to voters until a major election looms. And the United States is the most fiddle-footed nation in the world, its residents roaming the land with such frequency that registration and absentee voting become more than a simple process.

Moreover, the nation’s history has moved in the low turnout direction. In the old days, voter turnout was significant because the rite was an open event and fun-filled. In colonial Maryland and Virginia, for example, a citizen would cast his vote orally — viva voce — and then would be rewarded with food and strong drink by the candidate he had just voted for. When political parties arose in the 19th century and the population mushroomed thanks to immigration and a high birth rate, laws in most states were changed to permit political parties to print ballots. Party workers would lead voters by the hand to the ballot box to make sure they voted the straight party ticket and then treated them to favors afterward. Or voters were given a specially colored ballot representing the party of their choice.

Not surprisingly, turnout was high (as were a lot of voters) in presidential elections: 80.2 percent in 1840, 81.8 percent in 1876 and 74.7 percent in 1892. Because there were often close and contested elections in the late 1800s, reformers looked to the secret ballot as the better form of voting. But there was resistance. The state of Kentucky didn’t end vive voce voting until 1891. Still, other southern states, such as Georgia and South Carolina, weren’t the only jurisdictions having reservations about the secret ballot but even northern ones, such as Delaware, one of the last to accept the measure. It was first adopted by Massachusetts in 1889 and not by all states until 1910.

Opposition to the secret ballot wasn’t simply based on the self-interest view of political bosses but also on the fact that the process involved government, so corruption could also be the result. For example, after the presidential election of 1892 between Democrat Grover Cleveland and Republican Benjamin Harrison, one newspaper smelled a rat:

“The returns are not complete in any vote. Ordinarily, the returns which are made by election officers to the Police Department are made available the day after for the purposes of inspection and verification of the first returns. But for some inscrutable reason the returns received Tuesday night were put away in a big site at Police Headquarters, and applications to view them yesterday were flatly refused without explanation.”

Another shortcoming of the secret ballot was that a good portion of the American public couldn’t read. And when the measure was introduced, voter participation took a steady and significant decline. And states did little to deal with the problem, refusing, for instance, to put a picture of the party emblem next to candidate names to aid the illiterate. Even today, some 14 million Americans can’t read and are essentially disenfranchised. To add insult to injury, many states close liquor stores on Election Day as a not-so-subtle rebuke to the old days when freedom to vote and booze was unrestricted.

So voting in America is a choice, and the nonvoter’s reason, like the ballot, is secret. As the nation with the most freedom for its citizens, America thereby encourages non-participation as much as it does participation in the voting process. And while the latter may induce societal kudos, both options should serve to remind us of the enormous range of legitimate choice in America.

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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