Which Votes Should be Secret?

April Fools Day isn’t until early next week, but fools have not been strangers to me. I’ve been spending a lot of time lately in Washington, DC. And so, I offer to you my 2014 modest proposal to fix democracy. I grant from the outset that my idea may not make things better, but I yield not an inch to anyone who insists the status quo is better.

I suggest that every Congressional vote be taken in secret, and every vote we cast for our leaders in Washington be done in public.

First, some history. Nothing in the Constitution requires or even assumes that the votes we cast will be kept secret from our neighbors or from the candidates. Kentucky, for example, did not convert to paper ballots until 1891. Before that, each vote cast was done viva voce (by voice vote).

We consider the “ballot” to be sacred, but the word itself comes from “ball” — a bean or a button or a bullet would be placed in the candidate’s jar you chose to support. Ballots only became paper because they were easier to count. For most of the 19th century, ballots were never printed by the government, but by partisan newspapers or political parties. We pay homage to that tradition every time we refer to our party’s “ticket.”

In our first presidential election, only six percent of Americans were eligible to vote. From there, suffrage expanded more quickly than literacy. Many eligible voters couldn’t read. Privacy inside the ballot booth was nonsensical.

So there’s nothing outrageous about the votes we cast being knowable and known to candidates and neighbors.

Likewise, there’s nothing particularly original about the United States Senate or House of Representatives voting in secret. Both the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention met in secret. The Senate met entirely in secret until 1794. The Senate’s executive sessions were not opened to public view until 1929. House and Senate rules explicitly allow closed sessions, where votes and remarks are not revealed.

Closed sessions have been rare in modern times, but not extinct — unheard is not unheard of. The House of Representatives updated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Program in secret in 2008.

But don’t we want to know how our leaders have voted on every issue? I’m going to go with “No” on that one, and here’s why. Do you know about what they call “free votes?” If you don’t, you’re helping my case.

Congressional whips count their votes for a particular bill. If they have more votes than they need for passage, they customarily return to those whose vote may cause them re-election trouble, and release them from their obligation. A “free vote” allows them to “oppose” it — with permission from the party’s leadership.

Likewise, a bill that stands no chance of becoming law — a majority opposes it, the other house of Congress won’t take it up, or the President has vowed its veto — allows “free votes” all around.

(It should be noted that our own Rep. Peter DeFazio accepts “free vote” gifts seldom or never. It’s just how he rolls, but he’s an outlier.)

How somebody in Congress voted on a particular topic is not always a reliable indicator of their values. So why should we confuse ourselves with so-called “candidate scorecards” provided by special interest groups?

The voting public is no longer illiterate, but too many rely on television attack ads to make their decisions. Call these voters post-literate. They can read, but they don’t. They’re as easily swayed as Kentucky coal miners were in the 1800s.

Knowing less about our representatives would be worth it, because lobbyists and political donors also would know less. Politicians could take their money, promise to repay that generosity with allegiance, and then silently do otherwise. Lobbyists would hate that.

We can’t get money out of politics, but we can make the transaction between money and votes more tenuous. Money wants certainty, and we can deny them that.

Let’s make voters’ support of politicians more known, and politicians’ support of donors less. I’m not claiming this will work. I’m only claiming it’s worth a try.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.