The Secret Ballot, and Initiative, Referendum, and Recall Signatures

The Gallaudet incident, in which a university administrator was suspended for signing a referendum petition related to same-sex marriage, leads me to bring up again what I mentioned before: Most of the reasons that support having a secret ballot — rather than the non-secret systems that were used in America throughout most of its first century — tend to apply to initiative and referendum signatures.

Both an election and a threshold signature requirement to put something on an election are generally aimed at accurately measuring public opinion. Such an accurate measurement is much more likely if the measurement is undistorted by people’s fear of being attacked, fired, ostracized, or even annoyed by those who disagree with them. So just as our electoral system keeps secret people’s votes, both for or against candidates and for or against ballot measures, so it should try to keep secret people’s signing initiative, referendum, and recall signatures.

To be sure, unlike with a secret ballot, a petition signature could not be fully secret -— for instance, the government would know what you signed, though it doesn’t know how you voted, and it’s possible that the signatures would be briefly visible as other people are signing the petitions (though that could be minimized, for instance if there’s just one signature per page, and each page is concealed after it’s signed). But we should still try to make the signatures as secret as possible.

It’s true that the public availability of signatures might help prevent fraud, for instance if someone sees what purports to be his signature on a petition that he knows he never signed. But the same argument could be made as to public availability of each voter’s ballots, tied to his name — after all, maybe that might let a voter see that the ballot was somehow altered. Yet we forgo this potentially fraud detection value of the open ballot, because the value of figuring out what voters really think, uninfluenced by fear of retaliation, is so great. I think the same should apply to initiatives, referendum, and recall signatures.

Finally, I’ve heard some people try to distinguish ballot measures from candidates, or to try to distinguish signing a petition from voting on the resulting referendum, initiative, or recall. But I don’t think these distinctions should make a difference: Voting for laws, it seems to me, is not materially different, for secret ballot purposes, from voting for lawmakers. And being one of the very many people who puts a question on the ballot is not materially different from being one of the very many people who then votes on the question.

UPDATE: Some commenters argue that acts of “legislating” should be different from mere voting. But, again, I just don’t see the difference. When you vote for a candidate, you’re helping make a lawmaker. When you sign a nominating petition for a candidate, you’re helping make a lawmaker. When you vote to recall a candidate, you’re helping unmake a lawmaker. When you sign a petition to recall a candidate, you’re helping unmake a lawmaker. When you vote on an initiative or a referendum, or for that matter on a constitutional provision or statute proposed to the people by a legislature or a constitutional convention, you’re helping make a law. When you sign a petition supporting an initiative or a referendum, you’re helping make a law. If a secret ballot is good for some of these things, why isn’t similar secrecy — to the extent possible, recognizing (as I noted above) that the government will have to see your signature eve