DANIEL VAUGHAN: A secret impeachment ballot harms more than it helps

November 15, 2019

The latest new fad on the impeachment front is the idea of a secret ballot. People are already assuming that Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats have the votes to impeach Trump, and they’ve moved on to overcoming the obstacle of the Senate.

The theory is that the Senate could move to have an impeachment vote using a secret ballot — so no one would know how the senators voted.

The reason this secret ballot is needed, according to those advancing it, is because it would give Republican senators the political clearance to oppose Trump and vote him out while facing fewer political consequences.

But this theory isn’t just wrong — it’s the exact opposite of what the Founders intended regarding impeachment, and it utterly destroys any institutional credibility of the Senate and Congress at large.

It was Juleanna Glover, an adviser to numerous Republican administrations and officials, who published an article on Politico arguing for what she called a “surprisingly plausible path to removing Trump from office.” Glover writes:

Some might say transparency in congressional deliberations and votes is inviolable, and it’s true that none of the previous Senate impeachments have been conducted via secret ballot. But the Senate’s role in an impeachment is analogous to a U.S. jury, where secret ballots are often used… And, of course, when citizens vote for president, they do so in private.

Glover is making the same mistake here as Steve Calabresi, who recently argued Trump’s Sixth Amendment rights are being violated. But to repeat a point I made in my last column: impeachments are a political tool — not a legal one.

Neither the House proceedings nor the Senate trial is a legal event. The only legal aspect to it is that impeachment is in a legal document: the Constitution. But in it, we get no instructions on how to tackle impeaching a president or any other person.

In the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton said that impeachment was meant to remedy things that were an “abuse or violation of some public trust.” Speaking of impeachable offenses, he went on: “They are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated POLITICAL.”

Hamilton knew that impeachable offenses — and the investigations into them — would split the country into factions with partisans running to their corners, which would matter more than “real demonstrations of innocence or guilt.”

Impeachment, then, is the Constitution’s method for restoring public trust in all branches of government, because the president (or someone else) has so violated that trust that it requires immediate removal — not an election. Even though the Founders didn’t put rules around the use of impeachment, they did expect us to use it to restore public trust in the government to ensure its continuation.

That brings us back to Glover’s argument for a secret ballot in the Senate. The only reason she is pushing that angle is to give senators who privately don’t like Trump the ability to vote against him without facing political consequences.

We’ll ignore, for the sake of argument, whether a senator’s vote would actually remain a secret. It seems highly unlikely that anyone in D.C. would keep secret how anyone voted; Congress doesn’t leak secrets these days — it’s a veritable Niagra Falls when it comes to “leaks.” Indeed, we’re more likely to scream “TMI!” to the kinds of stuff being leaked than not (see the debacle over former Rep. Katie Hill that forced everyone to learn the word “throuple”).

But let’s assume the votes do remain secret. It’s already incredibly apparent that the impeachment of Donald Trump is a partisan event wherein Democrats have a conclusion, and they’re working backward from there. It’s also apparent that Republican and independent voters do not support impeachment.

So how does a secret ballot restore public trust in the government? Removing Trump in secret would utterly destroy American confidence in institutions. Sure, Democrats would cheer, but no one else would.

A secret ballot in the impeachment proceedings looks at the potential breach of public trust over Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukraine and answers that breach with an even more substantial, more profound breach of public trust.

A secret ballot doesn’t restore public trust or confidence — it destroys it.

That means that a secret ballot isn’t a plausible path toward removing Trump from office. In fact, it’s one of the most implausible ideas pitched yet — and this includes the fever-dream machinations of D.C. insiders who are true believers that Trump could be removed via the 25th Amendment.

The end goal for all of these people is removing Trump — not protecting the Republic, not restoring public trust.

Removing Donald Trump from the White House will not restore some rose-tinted view of the pre-Trump era. It’s not coming back. And you can’t destroy everything in society while trying to get there.

If you want Trump removed from office, either publically impeach him and convince the public, or beat him in 2020. Those are the only paths available. All of these other plans just harm the Republic.

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Daniel Vaughan

Daniel Vaughan is a columnist for the Conservative Institute and lawyer in Nashville, Tennessee. He has degrees from Middle Tennessee State University and Regent University School of Law. His work can be found on the Conservative Institute's website, or you can receive his columns and free weekly newsletter at The Beltway Outsiders. Connect with him on Twitter at @dvaughanCI.