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The Australian Ballot

Voting in Cedar Springs, and America, seems like a fairly standardized event nowadays. You can go to a polling place where you are given your ballot, you get to fill that ballot out in private and then have that ballot counted in private. It is all a neat, orderly affair and you don’t get beat up for your efforts.

Prior to the 1850’s in Australia, the 1870’s in the United Kingdom and the 1880’s here in America, secret ballots were not a thing and getting roughed up at your polling place was a very real concern for some voters. The “Australian Ballot,” as secret ballots were initially known, had four parts: 1. The ballots were printed at public expense; 2. The ballots listed the name of the candidates of all parties and all proposals appeared; 3. They were distributed at the polling place; and 4. they were marked in secret.  These four basic requirements, things that we now take for granted, (although I guess absentee ballots technically are not distributed at the polling place) fundamentally changed how elections are conducted and led to a fairer playing field for all political parties and candidates.

Voting for a large part of America’s history was done viva voce-literally “with living voice,” or in other words, you voted in public with your voice for all to hear. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln would have both voted this way and both would be elected into office this way. A typical voting day could consist of waiting in a long line surrounded by boisterous crowds, partisan hecklers, drunkenness and brawling, the drunkenness often being fueled by “treating.” Treating was a sponsored public feast used as bribery by a local political party or candidate to encourage voting for that candidate. At the end of the voting line, you would step up onto a platform, where you were seen and heard by all, you would shout your name, declare your eligibility to vote and your preferred candidates for a clerk to record in a poll book, everybody in the crowd having witnessed your vote. Now, in a contentious election, some voters would find themselves having shouted the “wrong” name and would have to exit the voting platform through a gauntlet of goons who would pummel that person with fists and clubs as punishment for their vote. The next persons in line, having witnessed the pummeling given for the “wrong” vote, might very well be hesitant to repeat that candidate’s name.

Even after viva voce voting disappeared, other problems existed prior to the Australian ballot came to be used. For instance, it used to be common place for your boss to print out a ballot for you, with the boss’s preferred candidates (and only those candidates) printed on it, which was given to you and you were expected to use that to vote (since ballots were not printed at public expense or distributed by the polling place yet).  Under those circumstances, voters might not even be aware of what was being voted on or who the candidates were since the voter might be expected to print out their own ballot or to write out on a blank piece of paper what they wanted.

While the secret ballot has been used in Michigan for many, many years as part of our voting tradition, it wasn’t until Proposal 3 of 2018 that it was enshrined in our Michigan Constitution to be forever preserved.  2020 will be a year of voting in Michigan with votes scheduled for this past Tuesday, May, August and November. Please exercise your right to vote and be thankful for the secret ballot.

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Ray Winnie
Kent County Credit Union

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