Who still regards their votes as secrets?

Speculations on who answers “none of your beeswax” when asked “how are you voting?”—and why.

About half an hour ago I was eating lunch (outside: this is L.A.) and overheard two female undergraduates talking about heading to the polls. One asked the other, “how are you voting?” The reply, with a smile: “none of your beeswax!”

The answer seemed unusual–not unheard-of, and when said with a smile not offensive, but not what one would normally hear. When I went to grade school in the 70s, I was taught that it was very impolite to ask other kids’ parents–or even one’s own!–how they voted. I certainly gathered then, and at least through middle school, that anyone who did ask would receive a none-of-your-business response at least half the time, perhaps coupled with anger at the questioner’s impudence for asking.

The norm of regarding voting as secret to friends may have been an oddity of place (West L.A.), perhaps coupled with ethnicity: the teacher who taught me the norm was African-American, and my grade school was in an area full of immigrants, refugees, Japanese-Americans, a few probable communists, and others who might not have taken their voting rights for granted. But whether I was taught an odd norm or the country has changed, I gather that few Americans now think it strange to ask others how they vote, and almost nobody would think it appropriate to express anger upon being asked. Meanwhile, my wife, who’s from New Zealand, has told me that where she’s from the norm I was taught is still in place: one doesn’t ask, and one doesn’t have to tell.

What accounts for this? Are there data? If not, can anyone provide interesting anecdotal evidence (my favorite oxymoron)? My own speculations are that in the U.S. the vote-as-secret norm tracks (1) contested civic status, as just mentioned, and/or (2) having unpopular politics: Democrats in Provo, or Republicans in Santa Monica, would be unlikely to want to tell others their vote and also, by the Golden Rule, disinclined to ask. Internationally, country-to-country differences might well track broader cultural norms about extroversion and reticence, and perhaps even strong inter-country disagreement as to what democracy is all about and how it properly functions. I’d love to hear about those too, in the form of either fact or conjecture.

Because of these speculations, I tend to wish that the norm were back in place, at least a little. For if I’m right, the people most likely to be offended at being asked their voting intentions will be those who remember when someone tried to take away their vote, or those who most need the secrecy of the ballot box to avoid social ostracism. So feel free to combine normative argument with the empirical speculation.

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.

17 thoughts on “Who still regards their votes as secrets?”

  1. I’m probably about 10 years older than you, and my childhood memories, mostly from the suburbs of Washington DC, are similar to yours. It was at best gauche to ask how someone voted, at worst an attempted invasion of privacy.

  2. A possibility: Given the increase in political sorting (http://www.economist.com/node/11581447), people are more likely to find out (or already know) that they are talking to someone who shares allegences. The odds used to be higher that the question would lead to an argument, or at least an awkward silence. When the expected benefit of asking is higher, people are going to ask more often.

  3. I’ve volunteered for lots of phone banking efforts in the past (and current) and I have always been annoyed by having to ask “Who will you vote for?” I hate asking that question and often I don’t. When pressed, what I usually do is rephrase it as, “Are you still supporting X or are you now undecided?” The funny thing is, whether by happenstance or cultural shift, I can count on one hand the number of times people have replied, “I don’t have to tell you.” People often tell me who they voted for or just as popular, “undecided.”

    Why my annoyance? My political upbringing was heavily influence my parents, who themselves fled a civil war. At family gatherings, I would overhear stories about voting, such as having to carry around a “cedula” (an ID) which would be marked in some way to note voting. Citizens who weren’t carrying around their cedula were assumed to be rebel sympathizers, and often hauled off to military bases, forced to vote or worse. However, as my parents described, the ballots cast usually ended up in a trash bin, no doubt because that particular precinct was opposed to the ruling junta. My parents also talked about “spies” whose sole job was to eavesdrop on conversations discussing politics, especially those who appeared sympathetic to rebels. So for my parents, it wasn’t just a norm to keep a vote secret, it was the difference between being “disappeared” or not.

  4. In my opinion, it’s not rude to ask, nor is it rude to decline to answer.

    It is rude to do either thing rudely, e.g. to insist a person share if they don’t care to or to respond angrily when asked.

    I prefer to live in a world where people don’t spend half their time looking for things to which they can take offense.

  5. I think it’s context-dependent. I was with a bunch of friends and colleagues yesterday, all probably fairly sympathetic with each others’ viewpoints, discussing how we planned to vote on the several California referenda, some of which we disagreed about. But I’d not ask a stranger unless I was canvassing (which would be how they intended to vote, not how they voted), and I’d not talk about it with someone I knew if I suspected we’d strongly disagree, leading to embitterment.

    Basically: don’t ask unless you’re pretty confident there won’t be hard feelings, and you have no reason to answer the question.

  6. I still believe that asking someone how they voted is almost as polite as asking about the length of their (husband’s) penis.

    There are a few relationships where this information shouldn’t be disclosed (employer/employee, teacher/student) and many (e.g. neighbors) where it’s no one’s business to ask. If someone isn’t politically active (with a bumper sticker or yard sign) then asking them is not going to improve our relationship: it can only make it worse.

    Of course, as an aside, someone who is politically active for one candidate is still completely free to vote their conscience for a different candidate.

    1. Of course, as an aside, someone who is politically active for one candidate is still completely free to vote their conscience for a different candidate.

      I don’t understand this. You’d spend your time, money, and energy to advance a candidate, but deny them your vote? This makes no sense.

      1. Because you’re socially or economically pressured into campaigning for a candidate you don’t support.

        Unions in Massachusetts, for example, have forced their members, including Brown voters, to campaign for Warren.

        1. I call bs on that one. What mechanism, exactly, does a union have to force a member to campaign for a candidate?

      2. Warren, I proselytized hard for Obama, and sent him some coin. But, as a blue state resident, I had the luxury of voting for Jill Stein. He needs some pressure on his left.

  7. I think it should be okay to ask, if there is no power imbalance. I also think it would be a better world if more people realized that they don’t have to answer every question someone asks them. You can just say, “I’d prefer not to discuss it.” If you’re not mad about it, they shouldn’t be either.

    Right now, like in the next 10 minutes, I really wish someone would talk to me about Prop. 35. There’s very little of any worth on the web about it. A lot of the opposition appears to be hype. It also has flaws, and does some important things that the Leg should have already done. I believe I have previously whined about how useless the Cali Leg is.

    Help!

  8. Growing up in Connecticut in the 60s through the 80s, I was certainly taught that asking after someone’s vote was rude. My parents who remain in the area still don’t tell each other how they vote.

    Today in MA, around lunchtime, a polite middle-aged Elizabeth Warren supporter rang my doorbell and asked if I was going to vote [perhaps if I had had limited mobility he would have offered a ride, a traditional get-out-the-vote strategy.] I affirmed that I was going to do so, and thanked him — but then as he was leaving he asked for whom I was going to vote. I said “pass”, but honestly I think it was a little rude.

  9. I think asking how someone is thinking of voting, or has voted, on a proposition is different than on a main candidate – maybe in part because the main candidates’ races have become so ideological and divisive that there is a risk of serious and hard-to-discuss disagreement. But many propositions may be open to a number of interesting debates. That said, it is not really done where I am (Toronto) in my age group (old enough to know better) to ask how one voted. I am prepared to talk to my now-voting-age kids how I voted, but I don’t expect that they have to tell me if they don’t want to.

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