The state of Virginialooks like a state-full of Election Day trouble spots, to many elections experts and activists. I agree with one of the main concerns (long lines at the polls) but I also wanted to share the beneficial flip side of the VA scene, recalled to me by the eloquent words of colleague Doug Jones of University of Iowa.
On the down side, let’s look at VA from the point of view of the 30 or so states that allow either early voting or vote by mail – neither of which VA allows. The state will be voting almost entirely on paperless voting machines, with a statewide ratio of about 750 people per voting machine, and much higher in some places – so much higher and in such suspiciously regular circumstances as to provoke a lawsuit from the NAACP earlier this week. Long lines are almost a certainty, and there is no comfort from these two official responses: the state board of elections Web site recommends “wearing comfortable shoes” and the Governor’s office says that Gov. Kaine "would like" to extend voting hours but isn’t sure if he has the legal authority.
In these circumstances, it seems like lunacy to provide people with only one option of voting: standing in line for hours at a polling place and running the real risk of not being able to vote anyway due to closing hours, or confusions over registration, or poll worker confusion over eligibility. (On the latter point, there has been quite a bit of mis-information bandied widely in the state.)
Why not let people vote by mail, for example?
Well, there is much to be said on both sides, and of course the main issue with vote-by-mail is that it is not a secret ballot: coercion, bribery, and vote selling are quite easy. Many people discount this, pointing out that the days of machine politics are long over, etc. But vote-by-mail is only one of several ways (and I do mean several; ask and I’ll post the laundry list) in which the right – and obligation – of a secret ballot are being eroded. VA certainly has some bad voter access problems this year, but it hard to say that the solution is to create some bad ballot secrecy problems next time.
And here is where I leave you with the sage words of Doug Jones, for many years certainly one of most eminent experts on elections and technology in the U.S. He tells us that there really is a vitally important moral and political high ground, that we are losing.
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. In each case, the argument is that this is not a significant threat. 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 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.
I’m with you Doug! I know some people are unhappy about the scene in Virginia, and others unhappy with Oregon. I can’t fault either of them. In this, the world’s oldest democracy (coming up on 400 years soon!), we actually have quite a ways to go get the confidence in secrecy and access that is simply assumed in the "younger democracies." But the good news is that many, many people in the U.S. are working hard on it.