After a mock election in the second grade, I ran home excited to ask my parents who they were voting for in the 1992 presidential race: Bill Clinton or George H.W. Bush. Not only did my dad refuse to tell me, he told me it was rude to ask. I thought, puzzled, Dude, I’m seven?
Jessica Watkins, a 35-year-old film producer, also learned about the 1992 election in school, asked her parents who they voted for and was similarly rebuffed. Growing up in Nashville, her parents were very active in politics locally, but were torn between the liberal sensibilities of living in a city and the conservative sensibilities of being in the South. Out of fear of being shunned by both sides, keeping their votes a secret became such a priority that she’s not even sure they tell each other. “Never have either one of them confirmed for me who they voted for to this day,” Watkins tells me.
When Veronica Garza, a 36-year-old Dallas native working in media, was watching her mother do the dishes as a child, she asked the same question. “I asked because it was the first time I was aware of a presidential election going on, and I’d seen a lot about the Clintons on TV,” Garza recalls. Her mom responded that she couldn’t tell her. “I asked why not and she goes, ‘It’s illegal.’”
Now, nearly 30 years later, this intense secrecy around voting is relatively unheard of. Voters sharing their political opinions, particularly on social media, is how candidates mobilize (and weaponize) support. In fact, people are so willing to disclose who they voted for that states like Arizona have passed laws to prohibit ballot selfies, whereas California and Hawaii have gone out of their way to protect that right. But divulging this same information at the dinner table with your family is different, and families who don’t talk politics tend to fall into two camps: Those who are apathetic, apolitical and may not consistently vote, and those who care so much about politics it could tear their families apart.
“This often happens if one side of the family identifies with one party while the other side of the family identifies with a different party,” explains Wayne Steger, a professor of political science at DePaul University. In contrast to the current stereotype of millennials fighting with their parents about Trump over Thanksgiving dinner, many Boomers preferred to sweep those sentiments under the rug when they were the same age. “Avoiding politics is a way of conflict avoidance in this setting,” Steger says.
This was the case for Watkins’ mom and dad. “You don’t want something like politics to come between you and someone you love that much,” Watkins says. It may have also had to do with why Garza’s mom brought the law into it. Although her parents claim they didn’t want to influence her voting behavior when she grew up, Garza suspects it was because her parents wanted to keep their votes a secret from each other and worried that their kids would out them.
Plus, as political consultant Jonathan Lockwood speculates, “If their kids went to school and talked about it, it could lead to negative consequences in the community, in the workplace or even in the church. When you live in a heavily blue or heavily red area, it can be like wearing a scarlet letter if you put your views out there. For some, it can also be professionally or socially dangerous.”
Interestingly, this is the opposite of how voting was intended to work, and prior to the 1890s, votes were public by design. Before the Revolutionary War, for instance, voting took place at carnivals where drunk people yelled out their selections. Even when states started to include paper ballots in the mid-1800s, people still had to publicly deposit tickets that identified their preferences by color into ballot boxes.
Such transparency was a part of the electoral sport, allowing political operatives to change their plays throughout the day and raising the suspense among spectators. It wasn’t until the 1890s that the U.S. adopted the secret ballot from Australia of all places. (Voting is quite possibly the only public drunken practice Australians have ever stopped.) Soon thereafter, secret ballots weren’t just the preferred way of participating in elections, there was an entire bureaucracy built around keeping votes secret.
During the 1992 election, however, the emerging 24-hour news cycle started to hit its stride. The first all news network, CNN, was founded in the 1980s, but was largely legitimized after its coverage of the Gulf War in 1991 — just in time to put the 1992 presidential campaign into people’s homes in a way it never had before. Still, omerta was the mood of the day — until, of course, Facebook arrived about a decade later. Even my dad has now found his public-facing political voice. (Honestly, every time my old man, who watches way too much Real Time with Bill Maher, posts about Biden’s experience, Mayor Pete’s intelligence and how Medicare for All will never work, part of me misses the good ol’ days.)
The choice to disclose or not disclose ultimately has a lot to do with privilege. The secret ballot probably didn’t mean much initially to white guys who would otherwise drunk-yell their votes, but it was crucial to protect women and minorities from coercion as they became enfranchised. Oddly, privacy and privilege now work in reverse. For the most part, marginalized groups can’t afford to keep their political interests private and have to rally support for them. In contrast, those who are secretive about their votes probably aren’t particularly threatened by the status quo.
That said, old habits die hard. Garza, for one, intends to carry on her family’s tradition of keeping silent about who she votes for — namely, because she thinks it’s arrogant for the average person to assume that their opinions matter, hers included. “People have this need to talk about it because they think someone cares. For those that are actual celebrities, it makes sense,” she explains. “But I don’t boast about who I vote for because it’s nobody’s business.”