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A new report by three groups highlights risks to the secret ballot presented by the growth of online ballot marking tools and online transmission of voted ballots, and lays out steps that voters can take to minimize these risks. “The Secret Ballot at Risk,” co-authored by Pam Smith of the Verified Voting Foundation, Caitriona Fitzgerald of the Electronic Privacy Information Center and Susannah Goodman of the Common Cause Education Fund, is aimed at laying out the secrecy protections states offer for voters and highlighting how some voting methods compromise those protections. From the report’s executive summary:
The right to cast a secret ballot in a public election is a core value in the United States’ system of self-governance. Secrecy and privacy in elections guard against coercion and are essential to integrity in the electoral process. Secrecy of the ballot is guaranteed in state constitutions and statutes nationwide. However, as states permit the marking and transmitting of marked ballots over the Internet, the right to a secret ballot is eroded and the integrity of our elections is put at risk.
Indeed, the report finds that the guarantee of a secret ballot is enshrined in the vast majority of state constitutions and protected via state law:
+Forty-four states have a constitutional provision guaranteeing secrecy in voting (AK, AL, AR, AZ, CA, CO, CT, DE, FL, GA, HI, IA, ID, IL, IN, KS, KY, LA, MA, MD, ME, MI, MN, MO, MS, MT, NC, ND, NE, NM, NV, NY, OH, PA, SC, SD, TN, TX, UT, VA, WA, WI, WV, WY).
+The six remaining states, and the District of Columbia, have statutory provisions referencing secrecy in voting (DC, NH, NJ, OK, OR, RI, VT).
+ All 50 states and the District of Columbia have legislated specific exemptions to secret voting, mostly to allow voters with disabilities to request assistance in the voting booth, should they wish it. This narrowly tailored exception demonstrates the priority state legislators have placed on ballot secrecy.
And yet, the emergence of technology that makes it possible for voters to mark and return their ballots online has also created the need for voters to “waive” ballot secrecy. The authors of the report are concerned that such waivers can put the secrecy of voters’ ballots at risk:
The authors support the use of the Internet for a variety of positive purposes in elections. The Internet can support voter registration. Voters can track ballots, obtain information about polling places, wait times, candidates and issues, and much more. The Internet can also be used to seek and receive a digital blank ballot that can then be printed out and returned via postal mail. The transfer of blank ballots to voters is reasonable and does not risk voters’ privacy or election integrity; indeed, a key provision of the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act of 2009 was to require all states to allow voters to request and receive blank ballots via electronic means. We recognize that in some situations, it is challenging to return a ballot via postal mail. The MOVE Act was passed largely to address that issue. It is important that all voters – including overseas and military voters – should have access to traditional absentee mail-in ballots. These ballots do not require a privacy waiver.
Our concern lies with the transmission of marked ballots via the Internet…For some overseas and military voters Internet voting may seem more convenient, but until technology advances to a point where it can be done securely, the risks are overwhelming and it should not be an option. Our elections are too important to gamble on.
Consequently, they make specific recommendations to voters concerned about ballot secrecy:
Engage your state policymakers in a conversation about the importance of the secret ballot; share this report with them.
Protect your secret ballot by marking and mailing your printed ballot, avoiding using fax, email or an Internet website or ballot marking portal for anything other than requesting (and if desired, receiving) the ballot.
If you are a military or overseas civilian voter, your voting process starts earlier than for voters who are not overseas.
- Get your ballot early: Request your absentee ballot today—it will be sent out 45 days prior to Election Day! Contact your local election official back home, FVAP.gov, or your voting assistance officer (VAO) to find out how.
- Get your ballot faster: You have the right to receive your blank ballot electronically if you request it. This will give you more time to get it back safely.
- Mark the printed ballot to safeguard the secrecy of your choices. Don’t mark “online.”
- Mail the printed ballot back. Even if offered, avoid fax, email or uploading your votes to a website or Internet portal.
- If you are a military voter, you can get express return for your ballot at no cost to you. Use the special 11-DoD label. Your ballot should arrive stateside in less than a week, and you can track its progress all the way back.
If you are a non-military/overseas voter voting absentee, check with your election official about how to vote absentee in your state, and when absentee voting begins. Check early so that you can be ready.
- Safeguard your privacy. Even if offered, avoid the use of an online method for marking and/or transmitting votes. Marking ballots without the use of a connection to the Internet is the best way to keep your vote secret.
- Use an inner privacy envelope when mailing back your ballot, and don’t sign the ballot itself! Sign only where instructed.
- Mail your ballot back promptly, or if available in your state, drop it in a secure ballot drop-box or at the elections office. Some states let you track your ballot to be sure it arrives safely; check with your local election official.
Remember, the availability of an online method for marking and transmitting votes does not mean that system is secure, nor that votes will be private, including systems offered in states where a waiver of ballot secrecy is not required.
I think this report is incredibly valuable for one major reason: it highlights how changes in technology have created conflict with the secret ballot and seeks to make voters and election officials aware of that conflict when considering how to cast ballots. For that reason, I read this report less like an assault on the technology involved and more like a call for election officials to notify voters about secret ballot risks so that they can choose how to proceed. It’s not that much different from the growing effort across the nation to encourage voters to send back their vote by mail ballots far enough in advance of Election Day to guard against postal delays. In both cases, voters deserve to know what could happen if they wait too long to return a ballot so they can make an informed choice. Some may still choose to waive the ballot secrecy, just as some still take their chances mailing a ballot the day before Election Day – but they deserve to know the risks.
Thanks to the report’s authors for raising these issues – these are important considerations and I hope everyone will take them seriously. Stay tuned …