Saturday, December 13, 2008

Distinguishing marks

What's the problem with a distinguishing mark on a ballot, anyway? If someone wants to give up the secrecy of the ballot, why shouldn't he be able to write "Lizard People" on his ballot? It's not mature, but that's not a requirement for voting, thank goodness. It's a sort of masturbatory joke. Mostly, the joker has to laugh at his own joke, alone. Loser, but again, not illegal.

Only in rare races will the stupid attempt at humor be shared with anyone else, and that person probably already has a headache and is pissed off to be reconciling vote totals for Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse after untold hours checking the public in at the polls. So, try this, and you're not going to get a laugh, much less get lucky.

The Senate recount started in Minnesota shortly after the election on Nov. 5. Right away, the Franken campaign started challenging ballots due to claimed distinguishing marks. The Coleman campaign soon followed suit.

Many of these challenges were frivolous, stupid, and if consistently applied capable of disqualifying lots of random ballots where intent is crystal clear and nothing hinky is going on. If a stray mark or a smudge could disqualify a ballot, why not a distinctive method of filling in an oval?

Although, against that, there are an incredible number of Minnesota voters who put an X through the oval before filling it in. If they thought their mark was distinct, bzzt, wrong. The upside is that their votes will be counted.

It turns out that distinguishing marks spoil a ballot throughout the English-speaking world, at least. There's a lot of case law from the past 150 years or more about. Secret ballots protect the honesty of elections in two ways. First, they prevent some forms of intimidation. If the goons can't tell how you voted, they can't extract the consequences of dissent from your hide.

It's still true that they can intimidate you if they can tell how you're likely to vote, say, if you're black and therefore unlikely to vote for some lizard-brained sleazeball of a white supremacist. Just for example. But I digress.

Secret ballots also prevent a political machine from paying off voters who vote their way. They're not just for protection of the voter; they protect the election.

Once upon a time, political parties printed their own ballots (hence ticket), which they preferred to mark visibly so that they could keep track of their captive voters. Once the government took that over, you might be able to put your initials next to Boss Tweed's candidate so that the poll workers could tell. In either case, there would be a few extra bucks for you to spend in the bar celebrating victory. Not an honest victory, but a good stiff drink nonetheless.

As it is, since the late 1800s in the U.S., vote-buyers have had to trust that their voters will stay bought in the voting booth, and that's a mook's game. Consequently, candidates have to work on convincing voters by engaging their brains, or at least their pocketbooks in a less direct and venal way. Or that's the theory, anyway.

You'll notice, of course, that big media hasn't reported this story at all. It's not that they're suppressing it. It's too far down in the weeds for them, they don't know the facts, and they can't be bothered with thirty minutes of Google.

If you have a DailyKos ID, please go recommend the diary containing this piece that I just posted there.

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