Diplomatics and the Ballot

Today I am going to pull from graduate studies at SOAS (M.A.) and Catholic U (MSLIS) to discuss the topic “Diplomatics and the Ballot” (not to be confused with the Malcolm X speech, The Ballot or the Bullet, a topic for a subsequent blog post).

There is an arcane science known as “diplomatics.” Diplomatics has very little and everything to do with what we think about when we use the similar term, “diplomacy.” So going into that relationship might be a good starting point.

Long long ago in a land far away, conversations and in fact, relationships between what might then be considered “countries” were conducted directly by kings, or often in their place and as their representatives, princes.

There were no foreign ministers or foreign ministries (or, in the US case, State Department). There were no nation-states for that matter, not like we have today. Nationalism and the nation-state would come into existence later. There were empires and potentates, and loose gatherings of people who sometimes spoke the same language.

Those kings and princes would write letters back and forth to their counterparts. These correspondences took the form of the Roman diptych, two plates hinged together whose contents consisted of information conferring certain mutual rights and responsibilities, terms of the deal, so to speak. From here we also get the Greek term, diploo, to double, and the Latin, diploma (doubled), a twice-folded document conferring certain rights and privileges. One might infer here a relationship between diplomacy and “doublespeak,” but that is also a topic for a different blog post. Upon receipt, the correspondence required authentication to verify its source and the chain of its transmission. Over time, this practice of authentication and verification of correspondence became known as “diplomatics.”

The term, “diplomatics,” finds current usage among archivists and librarians as “the analysis of the creation, form, and status of transmission of archival documents or records, and their relationship with the facts represented in them and with their creator, in order to identify, evaluate, and communicate their true nature.” The foremost scholar of diplomatics is a Canadian professor, Luciana Duranti, whose writings provided the above definition.

In this age of digital communications, the idea of authenticating and verifying the origin and veracity of transmitted information takes on a new significance.

Which brings us to part two of this talk.

The “ballot” is the instrument we use, the document, that conveys information on our political preference. We vote by “casting” our ballot, a process whose integrity is paramount and even sacred. The voting process in American politics is considered sacrosanct, and is enshrined in American art and literature.

Good Administration. Elihu Vedder, Library of Congress


The mural to the left shows a young student, on his way to class, casting his ballot.





Corrupt Legislation, Elihu Vedder, Library of Congress

The mural to the right depicts the voting urn in a state of disrepair and disregard, laying down on its side, with the ballots strewn on the ground, while the rich cat places money on the scale to tip it.


In addition to being a very special document conveying information, the ballot is also a type of written contract establishing the relationship between the voters and their elected representatives. I am fond of saying a ballot is not a third grade Valentine’s Day card. It is a type of diploma, conferring the will of the voters and the responsibilities of elected officials in its exchange. As such, the chain of transmission of the ballot is almost as sacrosanct as the ballot itself. It must be authenticable and verifiable. Enough said.

However, and I must pause to mention, the one place where the vote, at least the popular vote for the Presidency, is not enshrined, is the U.S. Constitution. Originally, state legislatures elected members to Congress and the Electoral College elected the President. Later the Constitution was amended to allow for popular election of members of Congress. The popular vote was purely a local thing to elect local and statewide officials. But it was always considered sacred, special, and the integrity of its process, to be protected and preserved at all costs.

Today, we have technologies to protect the integrity of documents and we have visual clues to protect the validity of currency. But we don’t protect the ballot. And we should be able to, but we don’t. I vote electronically for the leadership of my professional association, AFSA. I go online, register, get a special password, and cast my electronic ballot and it is all above board, safe, and verifiable. But for something much more consequential, national politics, we have a process that lacks integrity, and whose instruments are neither verifiable nor authenticable. Instead, we have ballot harvesting, ballot counterfeiting, ballot box stuffing, and various other forms of document spoilage (we won’t go here into programmable voting machines that switch votes or weigh the aggregated outcome according to an algorithm) that break down the integrity of the process. This breakdown practically ensures loss of integrity in the relationship between the rights of the voters, the responsibilities of elected officials, and the promise of a fair and safe process.

I don’t know what’s next. Legend has it that a young boy approached Benjamin Franklin on the steps of Constitution Hall in Philadelphia (of all places, given the rampant practice of voter fraud in that once special city) and asked him, as he departed the convention, “What do we have, Mr. Franklin?” Franklin responded, “We have a Republic, if we can keep it.” As I wrote in an earlier blog post, and paraphrasing the poet Etheridge Knight, “I guess we goofed up the whole thing after all.” The Republic appears to be lost, the dream of the founding fathers, toast. It is historic to witness it all, to be here as this history is being made. But it is nothing to brag about.

Here is the Knight poem, from Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/54239/the-sun-came

The Sun Came

By Etheridge Knight

                                                        And if sun comes
                                                        How shall we greet him?
                                                                    —Gwen Brooks

The sun came, Miss Brooks,—
After all the night years.
He came spitting fire from his lips.
And we flipped—We goofed the whole thing.
It looks like our ears were not equipped
For the fierce hammering.

And now the Sun has gone, has bled red,
Weeping behind the hills.
Again the night shadows form.
But beneath the placid face a storm rages.
The rays of Red have pierced the deep, have struck
The core. We cannot sleep.
The shadows sing: Malcolm, Malcolm, Malcolm.
The darkness ain’t like before.

The Sun came, Miss Brooks.
And we goofed the whole thing.
I think.
(Though ain’t no vision visited my cell.)

Etheridge Knight, “The Sun Came” from The Essential Etheridge Knight. Copyright © 1986 by Etheridge Knight. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260.  Used by permission of University of Pittsburgh Press.
Source: The Essential Etheridge Knight (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986)

p.s. PA Voter Analysis Report — https://www.scribd.com/document/484579782/PA-2020-Voter-Analysis-Report

p.s. MI Voter Analysis Report — https://www.scribd.com/document/486098384/Michigan-Vote-Analysis

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