I think we can all agree that transparency is an important core principle of the American election system. Anything that gives the impression that something is being hidden creates doubt in the process and in the results.
That’s why I’m especially concerned about a bill moving through the North Dakota Legislature right now. SB2271 would require the state’s presidential vote count to be kept secret until after the Electoral College meets (about seven weeks after the November election).
Can you even imagine the chaos and consternation that SB2271 would create? Just think back to the last election, when some states stopped counting ballots on Election Day and picked back up the next morning: Even by having to wait a day or two for vote totals, people became suspicious that something nefarious was happening behind the scenes to alter the vote count.
Millions of Americans were frustrated with how the 2020 election was run. Blocking ballot counters from public view, not allowing challengers to see ballots, allowing late votes to arrive in unmarked boxes: These incidents caused furor and raised the specter of fraud. If you think the “stop the steal” reaction to what happened on election night raised emotions, think of what keeping the vote totals secret could do.
Accuracy and integrity are two pillars of a strong election system, along with ballot access and voter privacy. All four pillars must be in balance for the election system to be as strong as it can be. SB2271 would throw the balance completely out of whack.
Who could be sure of the accuracy of an election result without vote totals? Who could have confidence in the integrity of the handling of ballots, the counting of votes, or the reporting of results if there were no numbers against which to verify the process?
- Letter: The election wasn't stolen, it was lost
- The misinformation that drove South Dakotans to Washington Jan. 6
If secrecy of the actual vote count were successfully maintained at local voting places under SB2271, then the North Dakota State Canvassing Board would receive the secret election counts from local voting places, add them up in secret, and keep the local and statewide counts secret until after the Electoral College met. It would be impossible for any watchdog group, candidate, political party, media outlet, or ordinary citizen to compare the secretly computed statewide vote recorded with what happened on Election Day at local voting places.
But let’s face it: There’s no way vote totals would remain secret. SB2271’s restrictions on releasing vote totals would apply only to public officials. Someone—a candidate, political party, media outlet, or other—would figure a way to release the vote totals. And that “someone,” no matter who it was, would be a lot less credible than a public official. Do we really want an election system where results of suspicious origin are circulated by messengers of questionable authority? Haven’t we seen well enough what happens when people doubt the legitimacy of the presidential election results?
Bills almost identical to SB2271 were defeated in the South Dakota Senate by a 32–1 vote in 2020, rejected unanimously by a New Hampshire House committee in 2020, and died in committees in the Mississippi House and Senate already in 2021. North Dakota would be wise also to reject the bizarre idea of keeping election results secret.
Scott Hennen is host of What's On your Mind radio program, KFYR/WDAY/Flag AM 1100, Flag AM 1090 and KLTC Radio.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.