An Interesting Question: Do We Need Secret Ballots?

Over the next week, we will be blogging on some issues associated with electronic voting. For example, we will be doing a post on why we have electronic tabulation in the first place (long ballots) and on some new voting technologies for verification. First, however, I am going to discuss secret ballots.

I am spurred to do this by an interesting article that came up in my google news alert on Friday. Lynn Landes, who writes about election reform for the alternative media, wrote an article entitled “Scrap the ‘Secret’ Ballot — Return to Open Voting.” Her premise is as follows:

From the Ukraine to the United States, many voters no longer believe that their votes are counted correctly. And that’s regardless of whether paper ballots or voting machines are used. The problem is the “secret” ballot.

Secret ballots are anonymous ballots. They can be easily replaced, altered or destroyed, particularly if voting machines are used. Even if voters ‘verify’ their ballots and even if audits are performed, widespread vote tampering can still occur with relative ease and little risk of discovery because there still remains no effective method to ‘certify’ the authenticity of ballots, no way to identify an individual ballot and link it to an individual voter.

If the secret ballot is the problem, what is her solution? Simple:

The entire voting process should be 100% transparent. To that end, I am proposing a protocol for Open Voting with Total Transparency (OVTT):

“Voting shall take place only on Election Day. All ballots and counting shall comply with the following criteria: paper-only, voter-certified, duplicate-provided, and hand-counted. Certification shall require voters to include their name, address, and signature on the ballots. Election officials shall provide the voter with a copy of the voter’s ballot. After the election, all ballots shall be available for public inspection at the Board of Elections office. Not permitted are the following: absentee or early voting, Internet voting, voting machines or optical scanners, and secret ballots.

Landes dismisses the idea that secret ballots discourage coersion. She argues that most voters are registered by party–which is only true in the 27 states offer voters the option to affiliate with a party–so voters already disclose their preferences publicly. Of course, as we have learned recently in the indictment of Scooter Libby, some individuals like federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald have a very strong incentive to have their votes cast anonymously to avoid being seen as a crony by the other side.

The bigger reason historically for having a secret ballot is to keep voters from selling their vote. As Richard Bensel wrote in his wonderful book, The American Ballot Box in the Mid-Nineteenth Century, the lack of a secret ballot used to create quite an open economic market in ballots. Voters used to be able to get a wide variety of products, from shoes to scotch–for casting their ballot for one party or another. In Landes proposal, votes would have a receipt they could provide to the candidate or party official in exchange for goods or cash. Of course, the voter might not be able to trade their ballot receipt for stuff from a party official. Instead, their manager at their job might require submitting their ballot receipt as a condition of employment (and voted “correctly” as specified by the employer, as a condition of continued employment).

Now there is good that would come from this proposal; it would likely boost turnout, since voters would very likely be able to trade their vote for stuff. The introduction of the secret ballot in the late 1800s did result in voter turnout declining, as the benefits of voting for the voter declined. However, this is only true if you live in a battleground state. Voters in the Republican South and plain states and in the Democratic New England states will likely get little for their votes, since their vote is worth little. For example, a vote in Utah–for either party–is worthless for sale. The market for votes in battleground states would be huge, however. Parties would have every incentive to literally pour money into these states to turn out the vote.