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What John Stuart Mill wrote about vote-by-mail … in 1860

Post by Peter Callaghan / The News Tribune on Nov. 5, 2012 at 4:08 pm with No Comments »
November 5, 2012 4:08 pm

As Washington conducts its first all-mail election, it is finally time to ask one of the great political theorists of all time what he thinks of this mode of voting.


In his 1860 treatise “Considerations on Representative Democracy,” John Stuart Mill was discussing the recent concept of the secret ballot in England to replace the open voting. The secret ballot was thought to be a way to combat vote fraud and bribery because only with an open vote could the briber know for sure that the bribee had performed as he was paid to do.

John Stuart Mill


At the time, a Thomas Hare had suggested that a ballot could be produced that the voter could fill out at home and send in by post. This mode of voting,  as Mill quotes advocates,  was proposed as a means to save money and “obtaining the votes of many electors who otherwise would not vote.”


Mill thought it indispensable that such ballots should not be mailed but verified with a signature at some public place and “in the presence of a responsible public officer.”


“The proposal which has been thrown out of allowing the voting papers to be filled up at the voter’s own residence and sent by the post, or called for by a public officer, I regard as fatal.


“The act would be done in the absence of the salutary and the presence of all the pernicious influences,” Mill continued. “The briber might, in the shelter of privacy, behold with his own eyes his bargain fulfilled, and the intimidator could see the extorted obedience rendered irrevocably on the spot; while the beneficent counterinfluence of the presence of those who knew the voter’s real sentiments, and the inspiring effect of the sympathy of those of his own party or opinion, would be shut out.”


And how could this be accomplished?


“The polling places should be so numerous as to be within easy reach of every voter.”


Of course Mill never knew the wonder that is Oregon.


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