What democracy looks like
On the long road to democracy, the secret ballot, and the metaphorical significance of the "I Voted" sticker
News reports periodically cover protests in which an assembled crowd chants "This is what democracy looks like". While a street protest is indeed an expression of the democratic right to peaceable assembly enshrined in the First Amendment, a protest isn't really what democracy looks like. It actually looks a great deal like the humble "I Voted" sticker.
■ When one pauses to consider the long and sometimes perilous path to universal adult suffrage in America, that sticker means quite a lot. It stands in for immeasurable persistence extracted in literal blood, toil, tears, and sweat. And it stands in for extraordinary sacrifices made to preserve a world that is safe for the rule of law by the consent of the governed. The right to vote still isn't universal everywhere.
■ The "I Voted" sticker, though humble, is perhaps the perfect useful metaphor: It is useful because it serves as a reminder to others to do their civic duty and vote. But it is metaphorical because it lasts only a short while and must be renewed quickly with yet another vote at the next election.
■ Some people prefer to show off their civic participation with ballot selfies, but we ought to treat those as a taboo, even if they are legal in some jurisdictions. At the heart of what a democracy really looks like is the notion of individual discretion -- uncoerced and entirely private. It may seem innocent to take a photo with one's completed ballot, but that act of self-expression can also be drafted into use as a tool of extortion.
■ It is impossible to know for certain whether a ballot selfie has been taken out of voter enthusiasm -- or because someone demanded proof of a vote in exchange for the safety (or perhaps the continued employment) of the voter. Prohibitions on taking pictures of one's ballot are a necessary constraint on freedom of expression (in one format) in order to preserve the freedom of the vote. Sometimes principles come into conflict, and the case of the secret ballot is one that generally ought to prevail over all others.
■ But the "I Voted" sticker is quite nearly perfect in its simplicity. In the privacy of the voting booth, anyone can consult the quiet of their own conscience to decide how (and to whom) to deliver their consent for representation. Advertising that a choice was made is quite enough -- and all the more important if it encourages people of sense and goodwill to show up at every election, whether for a referendum, a primary, or a general election.
■ Too many of our predecessors sacrificed too much for us to discount the importance of showing up. Voting is what democracy really looks like.