Many people worry about the security of votes in this country. Whether electronic voting machines, voting rolls, or Internet voting, there is much hand-wringing — and now the Secretary of Homeland Security is asking whether voting systems are ‘critical infrastructure’ (and they are.)
But a simple change makes most of these problems easy to solve: the open ballot.
We take the secret ballot for granted, but it wasn’t always so. Before the 20th century, nearly all U.S. voters cast their ballots openly. Most states switched to the secret ballot amid concerns that votes were being sold or coerced. Other states, however, moved to the secret ballot (= paper, written ballot) as a way to marginalize illiterate black voters.
The secret ballot mostly prevents one kind of corruption but it permits other kinds of corruption, in that voters have no idea whether votes are counted correctly, or even if they are counted at all. With a secret ballot, all sorts of things can happen between a voter submitting their vote, and the elections official reporting the results.
Meanwhile, the secret ballot gives us a false sense of security. At a time when big data is used to predict whether teens are pregnant, it’s trivial to guess how most everyone votes. Unless you have no credit cards, never shop online, never use store loyalty cards, and avoid all the other data traps in modern society — someone somewhere can guess how you will vote.
And most people are okay with that. Most people in our electorate don’t need the secret ballot. In fact, overseas military members regularly waive their right to the secret ballot, in order to vote by fax or email. Most people who vote are glad to tell other people how they voted. Most voters would gladly choose open ballots if they knew it helped secure our electoral systems.
Look at the central problem of verifying electronic voting systems: some experts suggest we only need a random sample of 3% or so of ballots to make sure votes are counted correctly. But with a large enough number of open ballots, we can do the same math even with pretty strong non-random patterns — say if most Republicans choose secret ballots and most Democrats choose open ballots. My guess is if 10% of ballots are open — 1 in 10 voters — that is enough to validate all votes, including those by secret ballot voters.
Moreover, the kind of corruption the secret ballot protects against is easily prosecuted today — think wiretaps and hidden cameras. Most people are not coerced into their vote, and most candidates would never dream of buying a vote (though both still happen, even with the secret ballot). There may yet be legitimate reasons a person wants a secret ballot — and they should have that choice, but it does not have to be the only option for all voters.
While the most obvious form of open ballot is to never make votes secret, there are other ways that answer concerns about corruption. One is to keep ballots secret until some time after the election, then make open votes known to identify discrepancies before results are certified. Another way is to keep ballots secret until there is a recount or reason to suspect fraud, and then make open votes public. Either of these better balances the corruption concerns of the 21st century against those of the 19th centuries than an always-secret ballot.
Last week NPR’s Science Friday ran a segment called ‘How Secure Are U.S. Voting Systems?’, weighing the problems with voting systems. The guests had lots of helpful, technically complex, potentially expensive solutions for solving the problem — but the whole conversation assumed the secret ballot. This assumption is implicit in nearly every discussion of securing the vote, but it never gets examined. Yet as soon as we stop assuming a secret ballot, most — if not all — of the problems disappear.
The security of our electoral systems is important, and an ongoing problem. We should be discussing ways to secure our vote, but those discussions shouldn’t rely solely on technical solutions.
We should be asking whether the secret ballot still makes sense — and whether an open ballot is the best, easiest solution to those problems.