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November 06, 2012 1:15 PM Who Still Regards Their Votes as Secret?

By Andrew Sabl

About half an hour ago I was eating lunch (outside: this is L.A.) and overheard two female undergraduates talking about heading to the polls. One asked the other, “how are you voting?” The reply, with a smile: “none of your beeswax!”

The answer seemed unusual–not unheard-of, and when said with a smile not offensive, but not what one would normally hear. When I went to grade school in the 70s, I was taught that it was very impolite to ask other kids’ parents–or even one’s own!–how they voted. I certainly gathered then, and at least through middle school, that anyone who did ask would receive a none-of-your-business response at least half the time, perhaps coupled with anger at the questioner’s impudence for asking.

The norm of regarding voting as secret to friends may have been an oddity of place (West L.A.), perhaps coupled with ethnicity: the teacher who taught me the norm was African-American, and my grade school was in an area full of immigrants, refugees, Japanese-Americans, a few probable communists, and others who might not have taken their voting rights for granted. But whether I was taught an odd norm or the country has changed, I gather that few Americans now think it strange to ask others how they vote, and almost nobody would think it appropriate to express anger upon being asked. Meanwhile, my wife, who’s from New Zealand, has told me that where she’s from the norm I was taught is still in place: one doesn’t ask, and one doesn’t have to tell.

What accounts for this? Are there data? If not, can anyone provide interesting anecdotal evidence (my favorite oxymoron)? My own speculations are that in the U.S. the vote-as-secret norm tracks (1) contested civic status, as just mentioned, and/or (2) having unpopular politics: Democrats in Provo, or Republicans in Santa Monica, would be unlikely to want to tell others their vote and also, by the Golden Rule, disinclined to ask. Internationally, country-to-country differences might well track broader cultural norms about extroversion and reticence, and perhaps even strong inter-country disagreement as to what democracy is all about and how it properly functions. I’d love to hear about those too, in the form of either fact or conjecture.

Because of these speculations, I tend to wish that the norm were back in place, at least a little. For if I’m right, the people most likely to be offended at being asked their voting intentions will be those who remember when someone tried to take away their vote, or those who most need the secrecy of the ballot box to avoid social ostracism. So feel free to combine normative argument with the empirical speculation.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Andrew Sabl is a professor of public policy and political science at the University of California, Los Angeles.
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