Why ballots must remain secret

The biggest problem with the 2020 election, and it looks like the 2022 election as well, is the loss of the secret ballot by means of mass mail-in voting.  Non-secret ballots have a long history in America, none of it good.  Two major movements to expunge non-secret ballots from America, one in the political arena and the other in the corporate, took place.  The latter, like its main impetus, Wilma Soss, has been too easily forgotten given its crucial importance to the efficiency of the economy.

In Fearless: Wilma Soss and America's Forgotten Investor Movement (All Seasons Press, 2022), Jan Traflet and I reintroduce one of the 20th century's most interesting individuals to the public.  Our book — and the story of Wilma Soss — should appeal to anyone interested in investing; financial literacy; and women's roles in corporate America, public relations, and financial journalism.  Experts in ESG and corporate governance more generally should also find this story vital because Soss was one of the infamous "gadflies" who pestered corporate executives in annual stockholder meetings about numerous important issues that still percolate today, from executive compensation and perks to independent audits to corporate election voting reforms.

Born in 1900, the precocious Soss took an early personal interest in the women's suffrage movement, which gained traction in the early decades of the twentieth century after widespread adoption of the "Australian" ballot in America in the late nineteenth century.  When balloting was non-secret, Americans' votes could be, and sometimes were, bought.  Just as deplorably and even more often, voters were coerced by employers, landlords, fathers, and others with economic power and the ability to monitor their ballots.  The belated adoption of the secret ballot in America undercut fears that woman's suffrage would simply give married men two votes.

National women's suffrage became law just as Soss came of age.  She claimed to be a lifelong Republican, but of course we cannot verify that, because with secret balloting, no one knew what happened after the voting booth curtain closed.  We do know that Soss made more money during her lucrative national P.R. career than her husband Joe did selling billboard space in Brooklyn, so if balloting had remained open, she, ironically, might have coerced him into voting for Herbert Hoover in 1932.

After becoming a corporate activist following World War II, Soss recalled the importance of the secret ballot to election integrity and applied the concept to corporate elections, most of which remained open affairs.  In July 1955, Soss launched her campaign for securing the secret ballot for stockholders in a letter to members of her financial literacy nonprofit.  "With your help and that of forward looking men," she wrote, "just as we won women's political suffrage so we shall win a secret ballot for shareowners."  Such views induced journalists to compare Soss to Lucy Stone and other early suffragettes.

By the time Soss began to gain traction on the issue, specialized corporations like the Corporation Trust Company administered the elections of most major corporations.  After annual meetings, however, they turned over all proxies and ballots to corporate secretaries or other C-suite executives.  Moreover, as Corporation Trust Company revealed in a letter to Soss, corporate election service companies were not allowed "to refuse information to anyone as to the manner in which a stockholder has voted."

The problem with open balloting in corporate elections mirrored that in political elections.  "Without a secret ballot," Soss wrote in 1979, "no stockholder resolution can pass unless recommended by the management."  That was because in addition to unreturned proxies, management effectively controlled the votes of their employees, which was sizeable in companies with strong Employee Stock Ownership Plans.  When corporate raider T. Boone Pickens tried to take credit for the secret ballot in 1986, Soss raised Cain, noting that she had helped to induce AT&T into adopting it in 1978, in part by bringing a 50-pound apple pie to the annual meeting.  The P.R. hook was that AT&T and the secret ballot were "as American as apple pie."

Despite winning some secret ballot resolutions and cajoling other corporations into following along, secrecy in corporate balloting remains an important issue because radical progressives, in and out of government, could use corporate voting patterns to identify targets for the various unpleasantries at their disposal, from canceling to doxing to swatting to special IRS or FBI attention.  That possibility could induce investment fund managers to vote in politically rather than in economically rational ways.

But regaining the secret ballot in America's political elections is even more important than in the corporate sphere, lest our elections again be unduly influenced by employers, spouses, and political party operatives.

Image: State Library of Victoria.

If you experience technical problems, please write to helpdesk@americanthinker.com