How Facebook Changed the Way We Vote for the President

When did voting stop being a private act?

One of my more vivid memories from my childhood is stepping into the voting booth with my mom in 1988. I was in elementary school at the time. The polling place, in fact, was actually inside my elementary school gym, which gave the moment a sort of surreal, dreamlike quality, seeing all those clunky official-looking machines in the very spot I had just played kickball just a couple days before. It was 1988, Bush/Dukakis, and I would tell you who Mom voted for, but the thing I remember most from that entire experience is that I was sworn to secrecy. I was to tell nobody. “Voting,” she said, “is very private, Christy.”

And it was, then, I think. Other parents seemed to feel the same way mine did; the teachers all talked about the privacy factor, too. I’m pretty sure my dad didn’t even tell us who he voted for.

I thought about this the other day, when I was filling out my absentee ballot. (Absentee because I’ll be out of town on election day.) I shut the door to my office, turned the page over when someone knocked to come in, and then sealed the envelope tightly, like it was my bank balance. I don’t know why I did this, except for maybe some lingering memory of a need for secrecy remains, even though I’m fairly certain everyone at work knows my political leanings. Politics is like the least secret thing in the world, anymore.

So when did this change, exactly? By the time I was voting for presidents—my first was Bush/Kerry—the concern about privacy seemed old, and quaint. Maybe part of it was the normalization of opinion-sharing we saw on TV: Even the “news” people openly shared their views, as stations began filling airtime with political opinion shows. And now! My God, now! I can’t think of a single person in my everyday life—except my mom, actually—whose presidential vote I can’t divine from a series of Facebook likes or posts, Tweets, quoting or sharing snippets from various news networks (Fox or MSNBC or Comedy Central pretty tells me everything I need to know), or even just straight conversations. I don’t mean to assert that I’m not a part of this: I’m as transparent as anyone. I may try to keep my politics pretty much off of social media, anybody who knows me for more than an hour knows my candidate.

It doesn’t take a genius to surmise that the death of privacy—all privacy, for everything—probably plays a pretty big role in lack of emphasis on the whole secret part of the secret ballot: In an age where sexting is a thing, and celebrities’ innermost thoughts are accessible by Tweet, and my friends are giving potty-training updates (“Flynn went number two on the toilet today and earned a new box of Legos!”) to 793 of their nearest and dearest, the idea that anyone would consider their preference for Biden over Ryan is laughable.

Part of me is not sure that it matters, really. Who cares if we know where one another’s political loyalties lie? Shouldn’t we stand up for what we believe in, and openly so? On the other hand, I wonder if the level of animosity and bitter divisiveness would be taken down a notch if we played our opinions and choices a little closer to the vest. I can at least say with some level of certainty that my mom and I won’t argue over our choices in the presidential election, because she’s not going to tell me anything. And I’m not going to ask.