State predicts long lines at polls, but voters used to encounter much more

With record voter registration numbers this year and interest at a high in elections from president on down the ticket, the Kentucky Secretary of State’s office is advising the state’s voters to prepare for Election Day.

In a release issued Monday, Secretary of State Trey Grayson says voters can expect to encounter longer lines than usual, and offers a reminder of the laws governing proper conduct at the polls, including a ban on electioneering within 300 feet of the polling places. 

“A little preparation can go a long way this election season,” Grayson said in the release. “Hopefully, voters will heed the advice so that the election will go as smoothly as possible.” 

To help out, the Secretary of State’s office has a Web site – www.vote.ky.gov.

Grayson’s advisory shows a much different picture of Election Day than what Jill Lepore with The New Yorker found when she researched the history of casting ballots in the United States. 

Lepore’s piece in the magazine’s Oct. 13 edition is an eye-opening look to how Election Day has changed in the last 200 years, with a shift from voice votes (“viva voce”) to ballots. In Kentucky, votes were cast by voice until 1891while other states had already moved to written ballots. 

Interestingly, up until late in the 19th century, voters were required to bring their own ballots to the polling place which were either provided by their political party or clipped out of newspapers.

For years, the idea of secret ballots was abhorrent to many in the country, who viewed voting as an act of courage, with one’s preferences open to the public. 

But with the adoption by several countries of a secret ballot, or Australian ballot, in the mid-1800s, the idea began to take hold. 

As Lepore explains – 

When the Australian ballot was propounded in Britain, James Mill’s son, John Stuart Mill, became its most articulate opponent. The younger Mill first took up the subject in 1859 … Voting, Mill insisted, is not a right but a trust: if it were a right, who could blame a voter for selling it? Every man’s vote must be public for the same reason that votes on the floor of the legislature are public. If a congressman or a Member of Parliament could conceal his vote, would we not expect him to vote badly, in his own interest and not in ours? A secret vote is, by definition, a selfish vote. Only if a man votes “under the eye and criticism of the public” will he put public interest above his own.

Mill’s argument was widely debated, but met with a practical-minded reply: even if voting is a public trust (which not all of Mill’s opponents granted), voters need to exercise it privately to exercise it well, because the electorate, unlike the legislature, consists of men of unequal rank. The powerless will always be prevailed upon by the powerful; only secrecy can protect them from bribery and bullying. The British Parliament adopted the Australian ballot in 1872.

It’s a lengthy article, but definitely one worth the time. I know it will make me appreciate the process even more when I head to the polls next week.

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