October 30, 2008
Voting in America, while a public duty, is an intensely private act. It is something akin to how the psychologist William James defined religion: "the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude." When you enter the polling booth and draw the curtain, you are utterly alone.
It was not always so. In an eye-opening article in The New Yorker of October 13, Jill Lepore describes the evolution of voting procedures in the United States, from manifestly public expressions of preference by voice vote or by counting heads in a candidate's corner of the polling place — much like caucus states conduct their party elections to this day — to the secret ballot, first devised in Australia in 1856, which only became the universal norm for general elections in this country at the end of the nineteenth century. The "Australian ballot," as it was called, generated much debate at the time, both here and abroad. When Britain was considering the measure in the 1860's, the political philosopher John Stuart Mill argued that voting privately would undermine individual accountability; would you want your legislators voting on bills anonymously instead of by roll-call? "Only if a man votes ‘under the eye and criticism of the public,'" Lepore writes, quoting Mill, "will he put public interest above his own." Mill's critics contended that legislatures are qualitatively different from electorates because their members share equal power. In a general election, Lepore summarizes, "the powerless will always be prevailed upon by the powerful; only secrecy can protect them from bribery and bullying." The critics prevailed; Britain went to the secret ballot in 1872.
In at least one respect, Mill was right. Without having to stand up and be counted, voters can be most capricious; behind the curtain, anything can happen. This is why pre-election polling is so often an unreliable predictor. Put on the spot over the telephone, people will say the first thing that comes to mind, or what they think the pollster wants to hear — or they'll just hang up. In the booth, they are left with their own decision, in their own solitude.
In this election especially, there may be many more undecideds than the surveys show. They will arrive at the polling place beset by "feelings, acts, and experiences" stored up in their brains over two years-plus of constant campaigning, now compressed into a few anxious seconds. They will process all accumulated data partly rationally, partly intuitively, partly emotionally, in the stream of their consciousness:
Republican, Vietnam hero, experienced, creative, maverick, spontaneous, impetuous, old, disabled, sloganeering, "my friends," White; anti-abortion, Keaton Five, surge-is-working, hundred years in Iraq, gas-tax holiday, Bush, Country First, Joe the Plumber, change, Cindy and the seven homes, "that one," socialized medicine, suspend campaign to solve fiscal crisis, flip-flop, trickle-down, Reagan...
Democrat, Black, youthful, determined, quick of mind, inexperienced, opportunistic, demagogue, Hillary-spoiler, community organizer, Leroy Brown, Jeremiah Wright, Weatherman Bomber, White mother, Hussein, Oprah, Teddy, Caroline, "thatone," Black; yes-we-can, change, pro-abortion rights, no preconditions, failed Bush policy, timetable for withdrawal, lipstick on a pig, mortgage relief, public works projects, solar and wind, health-care gradualist, Black...
Republican, hockey mom, you-betcha, young and perky, terminally fluffy, son in Iraq, son with Down syndrome, campaign- funded clothes-horse, apostate Catholic, witch-hunting church, Tina Feye; anti-abortion, drill-baby-drill, Putin rearing head over Alaska, less Rove/more rogue, 3 a.m. phone call, Katie Couric, White...
Democrat, Scranton and Wilmington, Amtrak commuter, Amtrak non-supporter, widower, avuncular, loose-lipped, Catholic; pro- abortion rights, foreign-policy wonk, 35-year Washington insider, partition Iraq, White.
Take deep breath. Push lever, touch screen, fill in bubble. Pull back curtain. Go home.
Sigh in relief. Tell no one. Buyer's remorse.