Voting: The appearance of impropriety

It appears that our election rules might be a threat to democracy.

In Suetonius's Life of Caesar, Caesar's wife was accused of having an affair.  Caesar claimed to know nothing of the affair but divorced her anyway, famously saying, "Because my family should not only be free from guilt, but even from the suspicion of it."

Today, our elections are not free from the suspicion of guilt.

Consider the idea of an appearance of impropriety.  According to CFR §2635.101(b)(14) — Basic obligation of public service:

Employees shall endeavor to avoid any actions creating the appearance that they are violating the law or the ethical standards set forth in this part.  Whether particular circumstances create an appearance that the law or these standards have been violated shall be determined from the perspective of a reasonable person with knowledge of the relevant facts.

While I served at an overseas embassy, our ambassador met with host nation government officials while assessing an investment opportunity.  The ambassador was horrified to learn that this was deemed inappropriate, that anyone would question his integrity, but the obvious question was, why do such a thing?  The mere fact that his actions had the appearance of impropriety should have been sufficient to cancel the deal.

The same thing goes for members of Congress trading individual stocks.  Why do so many members of Congress outperform the S&P 500?

Unfortunately, our election rules are riddled with appearances of impropriety.

Consider voter ID.  Most advanced countries require ID to vote.  Under our Constitution, the right to vote for federal elections is limited to U.S. citizens of legal age (18).  State laws cannot change this.  The only way to verify these two criteria is with a government-issued ID.

There's a lot of bluster about voter ID laws being unfair or racist, but this is spurious because no one expresses outrage for the long list of other activities that require ID: bank account, welfare, Social Security, job, airline travel, marriage, cell phone, hotel, etc.  In fact, suggesting that some groups are incapable of obtaining ID on their own could itself be construed as racist.

Reasonable citizens are justified to raise questions about the appearance of impropriety.  If the dealer left the room with the cards, we would all insist on a new deck and shuffle after his return to keep things honest.  The solution is simple: pass a federal voter ID law, and offer free IDs to every U.S. citizen before the next election.

The same goes for voting by mail.  If people are allowed to vote in the privacy of their own homes, how do we know if they are the ones who voted or made the choices?  This opens the door to pressure from family, friends, or others, which we can resolve this by giving each person a safe space to vote alone.

Suppose credible evidence surfaced that white, cisgender, heterosexual, patriarchal, Christian nationalist MAGA men were requesting millions of mail-in ballots and selecting all the MAGA candidates on their wives' ballots and harvesting ballots from their neighbors?

Democrats would end mail-in voting the next day.

Even worse, mailing ballots to all registered voters guarantees that thousands if not millions of ballots will be sent to people who are no longer alive or no longer live at the address.  A reasonable person with knowledge of the relevant facts might conclude that third parties are filling in some of these ballots and sending them back.

Finally, not having results on election night also creates the appearance of impropriety.  Time delays are an invitation for nefarious people to meddle.

These appearances of impropriety are obvious and glaring.  If nothing is done to fix them, a vicious cycle will develop as both sides race to the bottom.  Running a campaign will be reduced to flooding the country with ballots and scooping up as many as possible.  The civic duty of voting in person on Election Day will be lost.

In a competitive and polarized election system, the best way to restore trust is to eliminate all appearances of impropriety.

As Reagan said, trust but verify.

Anthony C. Patton is a retired intelligence officer who studied mathematics and philosophy at Augsburg Collect and received an MBA from Thunderbird — School of Global Management.  He is the author of Spy Mindset: The Business of Intelligence (

Graphic credit: YouTube screen grab.

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