A vote against Oregon's electoral reform

October 26, 1995|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Oregon, a progressive place, is pioneering a new wrinkle in democratic practice. The primary and general elections that will choose a successor to Sen. Bob Packwood will be the nation's first elections of a federal official conducted entirely by mail.

Like most improvements, this is atrocious. It is another step away from what should be the practice for people morally sturdy enough to deserve democracy -- oral voting. How did we sink to the shabby business of choosing leaders behind drawn curtains? What are cloistered voters afraid of? What good comes from practices designed to get the fearful to vote?

We will recur to those questions anon. First, however, to Oregon's folly.

Mail-order votes

Oregonians have conducted many local elections entirely by mail and last June the legislature voted to conduct all elections this way. However, the governor, a Democrat, with encouragement from both parties, vetoed the measure, saying study is needed.

Some Republicans worry that shoving ballots through everyone's mail slot will merely stimulate voting by people too slothful to bestir themselves for public business if doing so requires them to get to a neighborhood polling place. The premise of many Republicans is that sloth is a Democratic attribute. That is one reason Republicans opposed the ''motor voter'' law which requires states to offer voter registration where people get their driver's licenses or welfare services.

Democrats seem to share the Republicans' bleak view of Democrats, which is why Democrats adored ''motor voter'' and why they probably would favor a ''pizza voter'' bill requiring pizza delivery guys to register their customers. But surely Republicans should rethink their assumption that increasing turnout disproportionately increases the turnout of Democrats: In 1994 turnout surged and so did Republicans.

Some Democrats worry that Republicans, who Democrats think are better organized (is there a chromosome that controls this?), will benefit from mail voting because they will organize churches and other groups to pressure members to vote as a bloc. One Oregon political scientist says, ''You can easily see the potential for families sitting down together and deciding how to vote, and what scares everybody is the churches sitting down together and saying you can vote however you want -- hell is an option.'' But families will talk together, even about voting, confound them, and congregations will congregate, with or without mail voting.

Mail voting is a bit cheaper than setting up polling places, but mail voting abolishes a communitarian moment that is a valuable part of our civic liturgy -- the Election Day coming together for the allocation of power. However, what really worries opponents of mail voting is the specter of ''ballot-marking parties'' where voting is not secret. Another Oregon political scientist says he not only worries about churches saying, ''On Sunday, everybody bring your ballots and we'll mark them together,'' but he also frets that ''you may have a domineering spouse more or less enforcing his or her views on someone else. We'll never know if that happens.''

Decadent ballots

Oh, gosh, let's hazard a guess that it happens occasionally even without mail voting. Now let's get to the real question: Are not secret ballots decadent? Paper ballots themselves are, although for many decades in the 19th century the parties printed their own ballots, in distinctive colors, with full slates of candidates, so there was little secrecy about how individuals (who sometimes had to sign their ballots) were voting -- which party's ballots did they mark? -- and there was no ticket-splitting.

But back when democracy was vigorous and the results did not make you wince -- back when voters were electing Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Calhoun, Clay and Webster -- oral voting, often conducted around a whiskey barrel, was common. It persisted in virtuous Kentucky until after the Civil War. Why should a crucial public activity -- participation in the allocation of public power -- be done furtively, behind a curtain, as though some shameful transaction is occurring?

A hiding place

As Cicero said, lamenting the end of oral voting, ''The people should not have been provided with a hiding place, where they could conceal a mischievous vote by means of the ballot.'' Cicero wanted people to vote knowing that the most virtuous people in polity would know what they had done. Do today's voters want to make their choices in secret because they fear the disapproval of acquaintances? Such voters should stay in bed with the covers pulled over their heads.

Abolish secret voting, have every voter call out his or her choice in an unquavering voice and have the choice recorded for public inspection. You probably will have a smaller electorate, but also a hardier, better one.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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