I grew up in the Midwest, where everyone knew all the dirt on everyone else, and was therefore expected to pretend they didn’t and to espouse a great respect for personal privacy — sort of a social Mutually Assured Destruction scheme reinforced with good old-fashioned Protestant guilt complexes.
It’s not a system I’d necessarily recommend, but it did have some beneficial side effects, like an obsession with secret ballots. Asking how another person voted, I learned at a very young age, was both rude and an insult to our democratic tradition. People fought and died for the right to vote privately, the argument went, so don’t use it to score cheap conversational points or to stir up shit. (Iowans, even in the days before hog megafarms started exploding in geysers of burning manure, had strong opinions on the subject of shit-stirring.)
But like most patriotic lessons learned in the Midwest, that was based more on fancy than on fact. America didn’t start adopting the secret ballot for major elections until after the Civil War, and even then it took a while to catch on. It’s more accurate — albeit more uncomfortable — to say that lots of people died from the lack of secret ballots, most of them black.
Cue the biggest non-story out of Kentucky, the last state in the Union to adopt secret ballots for national elections: because talking about actual policy bores viewers to tears, TV reporters and anchors have suddenly become obsessed with Democratic candidate Alison Lundergan Grime’s refusal to say who she voted for in 2012.
This is, I kid you not, being spun as a scandal. Eager to tie Grimes to the unpopular-in-Kentucky President, political and media figures have been characterizing her refusal to say who she voted for as “evasive” — rather than, you know, how our electoral system works.
Whether we buy into the old-fashioned notion that it’s a rude question or not (it is), Ms. Grimes is currently Kentucky’s Secretary of State. Ensuring a private ballot is literally her job right now. Who she voted for in 2012 doesn’t have any bearing on how good a Senator she might make, but discussing it publicly would certainly reflect on how good of a Secretary of State she makes.
Mitch McConnell reminded viewers in a debate Monday that there’s no “sacred right” to privacy at the ballot box. That’s certainly true, in part because America doesn’t have “sacred rights” of any kind. But Kentucky, reluctant though it may have been to follow the trend, does guarantee citizens a private ballot, meaning it very much is a right until the law is changed. And it happens to be a law that Alison Grimes is personally responsible for enforcing.