In Defense of Secret Hall of Fame Ballots

As a baseball nerd, I enjoy reading Ryan Thibodaux’s (Thibodaux’?) yearly tally of Baseball Hall of Fame ballots. I participate in the yearly gnashing of teeth at Murray Chass’s intentionally blank Hall of Fame ballot.

But one thing I’m not behind is the push for mandatory public Hall of Fame ballots. (The Hall rejected the BBWAA’s vote to make every ballot public.) Secrecy in balloting among private citizens is a value worth defending, even if the votes themselves are based on malice or stupidity.

A brief history:

The English tradition was to vote with one’s voice, as evidenced by Virginia’s early voting methods:

As each freeholder came before the sheriff, his name was called out in a loud voice, and the sheriff inquired how he would vote. The freeholder replied by giving the name of his preference. The appropriate clerk then wrote down the voter’s name, the sheriff announced it as enrolled, and often the candidate for whom he had voted arose, bowed, and publicly thanked him.

Even as ballots shifted to paper ballots, the votes themselves were publicly displayed, often counted in plain sight of the public. But as should be unsurprising, the public ballot meant that public pressure could be exerted on any person’s vote. Bribes and threats were frequent.

Eventually ballots were printed by local party bosses. The secret ballot soon began to gain steam as a potential innovation in England and Australia. In England, intimidation was pervasive:

He referred the intimidation exercised by landlords on tenants . . . , by employers on the employed, by customers on shopkeeper. . . .  He had known half a congregation leave their parson and set up another place of worship on account of his vote, thus depriving him of a considerable part of his income.

(Boycott by Hall of Fame ballot would admittedly be fun.) Brazen vote purchasing was common in American politics, with the 1880s producing multiple tainted national elections.

By the 1950s, the secrecy of the ballot was a core American value, as seen in Twelve Angry Men:

JUROR SEVEN: Who was it? I think we have a right to know.

JUROR ELEVEN: Excuse me. This was a secret ballot. We agreed on this point, no? If the gentleman wants it to remain secret…

JUROR THREE: What do you mean? There are no secrets in here! . . .

. . . .

JUROR ELEVEN [omitted in film version]: Please. I would like to say something here. I have always thought that a man was entitled to have unpopular opinions in this country. This is the reason I came here. I wanted to have the right to disagree. In my own country, I am ashamed to say that.

Why have a secret ballot? The primary goal is that a voter is protected from public pressures. As a party boss, I wouldn’t know if you voted for my candidate or another one, so threats and bribes have no guarantee of success. And as a sports fan, I wouldn’t know if you voted for Roger Clemens or not, regardless of what your public posturing on steroids may have been.

(There were plenty of reasons why the printed secret ballot had negative consequences on turnout, namely imposing a quasi-requirement of literacy, but the secrecy of the ballot was not the problem there.)

So where does this leave us with the Hall of Fame ballot? Do these reasons of secrecy apply to the BBWAA? I don’t think we have to worry about vote buying (Deadspin notwithstanding), but I guess my position relates to first principles of the Hall of Fame ballot. With this vote, we want an honest accounting of whether a supermajority of voters believes said player belongs in the Hall. We may have problems with the percentage necessary, or the number of votes on the ballot or the composition of the electorate itself, but the purpose of the Hall is to see who the electorate believes is a Hall of Famer in their hearts, not in the face of public scrutiny. Unless we just want to have a JAWS cut-off and eliminate the electorate entirely, there must be something ineffable about the Hall of Fame, something that comes from a private evaluation of one’s emotions. The sportswriters are not elected by us, nor are they supposed to be “accountable to the public.”

There are of course strong arguments against anonymity in voting. Yoav Fromer argues that the secret ballot allows people the luxury of voting for positions that are publicly unpalatable. Without needing to defend their choices, voters can simply hide behind the secret ballot and avoid public accountability. Similarly, John Stuart Mill worried that in private people would be more prone to bias or dishonesty: “People will give dishonest or mean votes from lucre, from malice, from pique, from personal rivalry, even from the interests or prejudices of class or sect, more readily in secret than in public.”

But part of the reason the Hall is built around these secret ballots is the belief that we do want the raw honest truth from the voters. We don’t want their public opinions; we want to know what they believe in their dark hearts. And if they really can’t quite stomach voting for a “steroid guy” or they think Jack Morris just feels like a Hall of Famer, we want those flawed, messy and private emotions packed into their vote.

Furthermore, it’s not clear that Fromer and Mill are correct in practice when it comes to the BBWAA ballot. As it turns out, many people are quite willing to hold unpopular public opinions, and the publicity of ballots has not made Murray Chass or Dan Shaughnessy behave like any less of a dolt. In 2017, only five ballots were anonymous anyways.

If people want to reveal their ballots, more power to them. And kudos to Thibodaux for asking for ballots and to those voters who disclose their reasons for voting. These efforts undoubtedly add to our public discourse on what the Hall is and means.

I understand that I’m probably standing against the tide of history on this one. But we should not be quite so quick to force the disclosure of private votes simply because they may be unpopular positions.

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