Secret Ballot Is Under Attack

Unconscionable Bill Would Remove This Voting Safeguard


In the reconstruction period following the Civil War, black people who had been slaves were given their first opportunity as free citizens to vote. Allowing those who hadn't even been legal persons the fundamental right of citizenship was unbearable for unreconstructed Confederates.  Brutal harassment of unsure and frightened black voters was rampant at the traditionally open polling places in the South in the 1870s.

To confront this infringement on a citizen's right to vote, the reform of the secret ballot, already in widespread use in Australia, was introduced and enforced to the extent possible across the South. By the turn of the century the use of the secret ballot had expanded broadly among the states both north and south, and it became universally understood in our country that the individual voting booth provided the security for citizens to vote their own consciences.

A few years ago while I was Montana's Secretary of State and our state's chief elections officer, proposals began surfacing to eliminate voting booths and conduct Montana elections entirely by mail as was being done in Oregon where the idea appeared to be popular with the people of that state. 

The arguments for all mail balloting were that it would be more convenient for voters, that they could consider their ballots more carefully, and that the chronic problem of staffing polling places would be eliminated.

While mindful of the justifications for mail only elections, I could never bring myself to support them.  A domineering parent or spouse might vote for a whole family.  Political special interest groups or even religious organizations might want to help you mark your ballot if all voters receive them in the mail, and the option of the safe haven of the voting booth is taken away.

Now we see an additional threat to our tradition of the secret ballot which for over a century has protected our most vulnerable voters from coercion. Under the guise of the “Employee Free Choice Act,” American workers could be denied the right to the secret ballot in deciding whether to unionize their work places. If the proposed act now before Congress becomes law, once a majority of the employees sign up, a work place could be organized, but there can be no effective safeguard to assure that employees would not be pressured into signing the union card. 

Both labor and entrepreneurial leadership are necessary to make a profit.  No enterprise can succeed without both.  Certainly a strong, unified workforce can provide important balance in our economic system. Unions argue that organized workers earn significantly more than their non-union counterparts, and that they are far more likely to have good benefits.
If a majority of the workers want to be represented by a union, then the union shop should be empowered to bargain, collectively, for them.

But a union should be able to make its case solidly enough that a worker will vote to organize without an organizer having to look over his shoulder.  With a secret ballot, workers can freely vote their own honestly held beliefs.  Without it they cannot.

There is no place or justification anywhere in our system of free elections for citizens to lose their right to vote as they believe.

Bob Brown is the former President of the Montana Senate, former Montana Secretary of State, and currently is a Senior Fellow at The University of Montana's Mansfield Center.








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