Voting by secret ballot is a cherished right few Americans would blithely sacrifice. Who, after all, would feel comfortable casting a vote in full public view, with political party hacks and government officials watching every move and taking names? But organized labor, having lost a number of recent certification elections, is pressuring its allies in Congress to deprive workers of that very right when deciding if they want to join a union. Why would union leaders claiming to be friends of workers and democracy now seek to undermine a pillar of democracy for those very same workers?

Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone brought the secret ballot for political elections to Britain in 1872. Before that time, the law required every voter to publicly declare which party or candidate he favored. Voters could easily be intimidated, and they frequently were.

In 1858, the New Zealand Parliament mandated that each voter state aloud whom he was voting for at local polling places. Officials would record each vote in a book and the voter then signed his name next to it. At least one newspaper even printed a list detailing how everybody, by name, had voted. This lasted 12 years until Parliament bowed to reformists and introduced the secret ballot.

"Oral balloting" was not uncommon in the early decades of American history, though it all but disappeared by the middle of the 19th century. The secret ballot came to be widely regarded as an anti-corruption, pro-democracy reform that would allow voters to follow their conscience in political contests. When Congress set the rules for union representation in the 1930s, Americans expected that union organizing should likewise be free of intimidation.

At issue now is organized labor’s push to supplant the 1935 National Labor Relations Act requirement of a secret ballot with what labor officials call a "card check." Under this system, if a majority of workers simply sign a card, no secret-ballot election would be held and the union would automatically be authorized. Everybody would know who voted and how, including the local union representatives who wield great influence over workers’ futures.

The numbers help explain organized labor’s move. In 2001, the National Labor Relations Board supervised nearly 2,700 representation elections at work sites around the country. Unions won 54 percent of those elections, even though more workers overall voted to reject a union (a total of 95,458 across all elections voted no, while 81,347 voted yes). Secret ballots, therefore, are risky if you really want to win. Organizing efforts in 2006 produced almost 1,000 fewer elections with only marginally better outcomes for unions. Card checks could get the job done with considerably more ease (if not sleaze) than those nettlesome and unpredictable secret ballots.

Where do union workers themselves stand on the issue? A 2004 survey of union workers conducted by Zogby International for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy found that 53 percent of union members would prefer the current secret-ballot system to one in which union organizers need only gather a majority of signatures before a workplace is unionized.

The Zogby survey, detailed in a Mackinac Center policy brief, also showed that union employees would oppose card-check initiatives even more strongly if they saw the card-check system as a threat to their privacy and to current safeguards:

  • 78 percent would keep the current secret-ballot process, rather than replace it with one less private.

  • 71 percent agree that the current government-supervised, secret-ballot process is fair.

  • 66 percent do not think their company and union organizers should be able to make a special agreement to bypass secret-ballot elections.

  • 63 percent believe stronger laws are needed to ensure the existing secret-ballot process lets members make their decisions about forming a union in private.

Fewer than one in 10 private-sector workers in America these days belong to a union. Organized labor, a mere 7.4 percent of the private work force, seems unable to attribute its free fall to anything other than nasty employers or nefarious market forces. Perhaps its own tactics, such as assaulting the right to a secret ballot, help explain its doldrums.

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Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.