"The vanishing ballot box: early voting and its meaning", Arnaldo Testi

The vanishing ballot box: early voting and its meaning

In the 2008 presidential election, more Americans than ever voted prior to election day. An estimated 30% of the nation’s voters (almost 40 million) cast their ballots at early-voting polling places or by mail. The numbers are growing, up from 20% in 2004 – and from 7% in 1992. Data are especially impressive in the South, the Southwest and the West Coast. In Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, early or mail-in votes were a substantial majority of all votes cast. Mail-in voting, in particular, seems to be the trendy way to go, with more and more states allowing “no-excuse” permanent absentee voting. In California mail ballot votes alone were almost 6 million or 43% of the total. Since 1998 Oregon requires that all elections be conducted by mail; it is the only state to do so, although others are considering such a radical move.  

Under the mail-in voting systems, citizens may prepare their ballots when and where they choose, days or perhaps weeks before the general election day, while campaigning is still going on, alone or in the company of family members, friends, political cronies, co-workers; they may drop them off at city and county offices, special collection centers, special or regular mailboxes. According to 2008 news reports, in Oregon and Colorado “voting parties” were held in private homes, groups of people getting together for a few hours to share thoughts on candidates and issues, read newspapers and broadsides, openly mark their ballots at kitchen or coffee tables and take them to the nearest mailbox. And parties being parties, there was also small talk, snacks, drinking and dancing.

Political scientists are beginning to investigate the impact of these new developments on electoral behavior, partisan electioneering and candidate strategies. So do, of course, party strategists: how do you influence voters who may have already voted when you reach them at the frenzied peak of the fall campaign? What is most striking from a historical point of view, however, is the change the new developments bring about in the relationship of the individual voter to the collective, public, synchronic performance of voting, or, in other words, the relationship of the bodies of individual voters to the national body politic.

The traditional way of voting, a quiet, solitary moment behind a curtain in a booth, is gone – or so it seems in significant sections of the country. Gone is the polling place as “the temple” of American democracy, as Justice David Brewer famously called it in the early 1900’s: a designated space run by public authorities where citizens gather, at a designated time, under the blessing of the national flag, to exercise, each of them in screened secrecy, their individual franchises.

Gone, some complain, is the sense of shared endeavor experienced there, waiting in line with neighbors, acquaintances, strangers of different status and opinions – and, at the end of the line, establishing some direct contact with public officials. Gone, at the same time, is the sense of safety that comes from mandated secrecy. With mail-in voting, the act of casting a ballot is privatized, taken away from the public square and from public authority and citizen control; therefore it is open to the vagaries of private individual and social pressures. What if abusive or influential persons try to intimidate vulnerable voters, what if your boss invites you to a voting party?

Gone, others say with relief, are the hours wasted in boring waiting lines with nondescript, uninteresting absolute strangers, and in stuffy booths. There may be a class and cultural bias here, an attempt to flee an unpleasant public place and take refuge in friendly private surroundings. According to opinion polls, California mail-in voters tend to be more non-Hispanic white, more female, more educated and suburban, more politically moderate than their fellow citizens who are precinct voters. And voting parties seem to be gatherings of like-minded middle-class people.

Gone, in a word, is the ceremonial Election Day with capital letters, Walt Whitman’s "America’s choosing day, / (The heart of it not in the chosen - the act itself the main, the quadrennial choosing).”  The single day when the physical bodies of active citizens solemnly, orderly and simultaneously assemble to form the collective body politic of the republic and to perform the privilege, obligation and pleasure of exercising sovereignty.

Of course “traditional” is always a tricky qualifier. Most of the voting procedures and rituals associated with election day as we know them are in fact pretty “modern.” They are no older than a century, shaped by a wave of electoral reforms, the so-called Australian “secret ballot” laws, that swept through the states of the Union in the 1890’s. Before that, it was a different world, traditional in a different tradition.

In the nineteenth century voting was a community affair, often an oral or viva voce performance. When paper ballots were required, they were prepared at home, in taverns or in the street, perhaps on the back of a bystander, and they were open to inspection. Political preferences were delivered in front of whoever wished to see and hear, amid lively discussions and leaflet peddling. Polls stayed open for days, particularly in state and local elections, and turned into festivals, drink-and-dance popular events. (Presidential elections were restricted to only one day by federal law in 1845.) And yes, social and political pressures were widely applied, sometimes turning into intimidation and bullying.

Does the new, 21st century world of scattered voting bodies, privatized and not-so-private mail voting, and cheerful voting parties suggest a return to some features, at least, of this old world of community voting? A post-modern return to a pre-modern future? A future when, mirroring John Stuart Mill’s well-known argument in defense of the open ballot, "for every voter there is at least a chance that his friends and associates are in a position to know how he votes"?

This is still a mere suggestion. Certainly, the twentieth-century regime of voting simultaneously in a secret, sacred booth is now fading away. If and when remote online voting from private locations and private personal computers, or tablets or Smartphones, at home or in any other place, will be permitted, the trend of staying away from the polling offices, inaugurated by mail-in voting, will predictably be facilitated and reinforced. Voting bodies will further vanish from the shared public square. Then a new regime will be born.