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Secret Ballots Could Save Democracy

February 13th, 2021 by dk

Republicans in the U. S. House of Representatives took two votes last week inside their caucus. They supported Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has been one of Trump’s loudest supporters. Then they endorsed Rep. Liz Cheney’s leadership position, despite her vote for Trump’s impeachment.

How could legislators take two votes on the same day that represented diametrically opposed positions? The answer is simple. The Greene referendum was public. It ended with a standing ovation. Cheney’s fate was determined by secret ballot.

If politicians have a singular skill, it’s the uncanny ability to “read the room.” Abandoning Greene could cause them trouble they wouldn’t want. On Cheney, they could vote their conscience, without fear of reprisals. Only 61 voted to remove Cheney from leadership, with 145 supporting her.

That got me thinking about a new way to curb polarization and extremism on Capitol Hill. It would also free Congresspeople from the thrall of monied interests. Imagine how less poisonous and more productive Congress could become if secret ballots were allowed for legislation.

Lobbyists would hate it, because they could never be sure whether their campaign contributions bought them votes. Campaign consultants wouldn’t be able to churn out disparaging “score cards” of past votes that attack political opponents. (Does anyone know any better argument in favor than incurring the wrath of these two groups?)

I looked into it. It could be done.

Article 1, Section 5, third paragraph of the U. S. Constitution requires the House and Senate to publish “from time to time” … “a Journal of its Proceedings” that records “the Yeas and Nays of the Members” … “excepting such Parts as may in their Judgment require Secrecy.”

There’s a second exception. Any vote can be kept secret if four-fifths of those present request it. Could a vote to keep a vote secret itself require secrecy? That could be decided with a majority vote.

Before you become too convinced that Democrats and Republicans could never join forces to attain an 80 percent supermajority, look again at the secret ballot result on Cheney. Every Democrat would support Cheney’s anti-Trump remarks. The 61 Republicans who wanted her punished represent less than 15 percent of the entire House.

The practice of secret voting is not completely unheard of. The House has twice voted to select a president when the Electoral College failed to produce a winner — Thomas Jefferson in 1800 and John Quincy Adams in 1824. Those votes were secret. More recently, the House passed an amendment to the Freedom of Information Act in 2016 by a voice vote, leaving no record of individual votes.

Granted, it’s not an ideal solution. Transparency is always preferred. But we all agree the status quo is not working. Until we figure out a way to stop every vote from being weaponized or remunerated, using secret ballots selectively could help democracy steer around its present pothole of partisanship.

If Congress took secret votes, legislators could focus on making laws — instead of constantly raising money and guarding their incumbency. We can’t get money out of politics. But we can make it worthless.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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