[Today I want to share some eloquent writing about the right to a secret ballot. Though Doug Jones' October 2008 remarks are about an issue that arose a couple years ago, his words remain extremely relevant, especially in the context of the current discussion of e-mail voting. The discussion with Doug started with an issue in which there was a trade-off between a well-meaning attempt to streamline polling place operations on the one hand, and the chance that as a result, a single ballot in the polling place might become attributable to a voter. With the latter being highly unlikely, should we really forego a chance to reduce opportunity for errors in polling place operations? Over to Doug ….] If this were the only threat to the right to a secret ballot, I would not be too worried.  The problem is, if you look across the current voting system landscape, you find that the right to a secret ballot is being downplayed again and again.

  • The crypto-voting folks are anxious to put serial numbers on our ballots.
  • The proliferation of different ballot styles in some states creates a high likelihood that a significant number of voters in each precinct will each be the only voter using some particular ballot style in that precinct.
  • Ballot tracking systems for vote-by-mail elections create the possibility that voters will be able to identify the particular batch of ballots that their ballot was in, with a high likelihood that theirs is the only ballot of some particular style that got into that batch.

In each case, the argument is that this is not a significant threat. In sum, we are at risk of losing the right to a secret ballot.

I agree that many voters today do not greatly value the right to a secret ballot.  Most of us feel free from threat of coercion, and most of our votes aren't for sale.

However (as I said to the editor of the National Review recently), we shouldn't ask what is good enough for us, given current conditions, but what defenses will we have in place in the event that we elect a corrupt government; and also, what example do we set for corrupt governments that we'd like to urge on the path to democracy.  If we allow a weakened right to a secret ballot, how can we ask other countries to set higher standards, and what will we do if the crooks do end up in control of our elections?

It's important to recall that it was not too long ago that big city political machines routinely violated people's right to a secret ballot.  I would propose that the abuses of this were sufficiently severe that the right to a secret ballot would be a reasonable benchmark for election integrity -- if some threat is more serious than the loss of the right to a secret ballot, then it is a very serious threat.  If some threat model discounts threats to secret ballots as negligible, then the threat model is probably wrong.


[A closing remark … Yes, there are several competing interests in election administration and election management, as the email debate shows. But it does seem that we need to keep a special eye on ballot secrecy, or it might might get lost in the shuffle. Even as election practices continue to evolve, as they have throughout U.S. history, we need to look for opportunities to strengthen ballot secrecy, and vigorously pursue those opportunities.

-- EJS]