When Steve Garfield tries a new beer or goes to a concert, he automatically posts his opinions on social media. So after he voted, he naturally shared his secret ballot with his 2,382 Facebook friends.
“I didn’t even think of it as anything to think about,” said Garfield, an independent media producer from Jamaica Plain and an Obama supporter.
Never mind that in the 1880s, a time when votes were public, Americans became so unhappy with the attendant bribes and threats that they fought to make voting private. In 2012, some voters were so eager to reveal all that they photographed their ballots in the booth itself or rushed from the polling room to update their status.
The social media announcement is the new “I voted” sticker. More than 1 in 5 registered voters shared or planned to share their votes with social media pals, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project , an openness the project’s director attributes to changing societal expectations, especially among young people who post about everything that happens in their lives.
“In a networked age, people share a lot more stuff about what they are doing on an ongoing basis,” Lee Rainie said. “Secondly, your political preferences are part of your identity.”
Some people reveal their votes in hopes of persuading friends, he said, and others see going public as an important part of building their personal brand for work-related reasons.
But he added a note of caution: “This becomes part of the ever-growing data footprint that everyone leaves. The parties will know that you declared in 2012 that you were a Romney supporter. That will be a meaningful data point for political consultants from now until you die.”
‘People can look at these things for years to come and they can see I voted in this election.’
But in Roxbury, 25-year-old Shaikh Hasib said he wants his vote to be part of his permanent record. “People can look at these things for years to come and they can see I voted in this election,” said the community organizer and University of Massachusetts Boston student. “I’m proud of that fact.”
In a modern version of “if a tree falls in the woods,” Hasib said that if he voted but didn’t post on social media, he would have felt the entire thing hadn’t happened. “It’s an important way to mark it.”
Joel McAuliffe, 20, a student at Springfield Technical Community College, also wasn’t concerned about revealing his choice for US Senator online. “Scott [Brown] is a blue-collar moderate Republican who has worked with the president on numerous things,” his Facebook post read in part. “Put country above party!”
McAuliffe said he’s noticed older people talk about the secret ballot’s sanctity, but he sees drawbacks. “Maybe I can make a difference by passing my opinions on,” he said.
But even some who post about their votes worry about making themselves vulnerable. So while Antony Ohman tweeted his support for Brown — “If you vote for @elizabethforma you’re dead to me” — the Gordon College student kept his choice for president to himself.
“People take a presidential vote more to heart,” he said, expressing genuine sorrow that he didn’t feel comfortable sharing his Obama or Romney vote with the world. “It’s a shame.”’
The Pew center doesn’t have comparative statistics showing how many social media users posted about their votes in the 2008 election, Rainie said, but he estimates the percentage would have probably been in the medium single digits. “In 2006,” he added, “the number was zero.”
As for 2016, he couldn’t hazard a guess. Rainie added that he didn’t even know “what question we’ll be asking” by then. But the way things are going, by 2016 election day might be reminiscent of the nation’s first century, when voting was a social experience.
“People would come together in the town square or occasionally a tavern and vote by voice,” said Sasha Issenberg, the author of “The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns.” “There was no secret about how your neighbors or your boss or relatives voted.”
But the openness led to vote buying and intimidation, and in the late 1880s, states began to adopt voting reforms that started in Australia and England. “By the turn of the century,” Issenberg said, Election Day had changed from spectacle to a “solemn occasion for curtained isolation.”
Asked if he was surprised about the direction that things are going, Issenberg said no. “It seems like a natural progression of things,” he said, noting that tweets are just the next step for a society that already displays lawn signs and car bumper stickers. “We have very little expectation of privacy,” he said. “Very few Americans really keep their choices to themselves.”
And yet, there is one bit of personal information that for many remains just too personal. When Garfield, the independent media producer, was asked his age, he turned mum, citing Internet security concerns. “I don’t disclose that.”Beth Teitell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.