Today I want to continue our discussion of the secret ballot. (Previous posts: 1, 2.) One purpose of the secret ballot is to prevent coercion: if ballots are strongly secret, then the voter cannot produce evidence of how he voted, allowing him to lie safely to the would-be coercer about how he voted.
Talk about coercion usually centers on lead-pipe scenarios, where somebody issues a direct threat to a voter. Nice kneecaps you have there … be a shame if something unfortunate should happen to them.
But coercion needn’t be so direct. Consider this scenario: Big Johnny is a powerful man in town. Disturbing rumors swirl around him, but nothing has ever been proven. Big Johnny is pals with the mayor, and it’s no secret that Big Johnny wants the mayor reelected. The word goes around town that Big Johnny can tell how you vote, though nobody is quite sure how he does it. When you get to the polling place, Big Johnny’s cousin is one of the poll workers. You’re no fan of the mayor, but you don’t know much about his opponent. How do you vote?
What’s interesting about this scenario is that it doesn’t require Big Johnny to do anything. No lawbreaking is necessary, and the scheme works even if Big Johnny can’t actually tell how you vote, as long as the rumor that he can is at all plausible. You’re free to vote for the other guy, but Big Johnny’s influence will tend to push your vote toward the mayor. It’s soft coercion.
This sort of scheme would work today. E-voting systems are far from transparent. Do you know what is recorded in the machine’s memory cartridge? Big Johnny’s pals can get the cartridge. Is your vote time-stamped? Big Johnny’s cousin knows when you voted. Are the votes recorded in the order they were cast? Big Johnny’s cousin knows that you were the 37th voter today.
Paper ballots aren’t immune to such problems, either. Are you sure the blank paper ballot they gave you wasn’t marked? Remember: scanners can see things you can’t. And high-res scanners might be able to recognize tiny imperfections in that sheet of paper, or distinctive ink-splatters in its printing. Sure, the ballots are counted by hand, right there in the precinct, but what happens to them afterward?
There’s no perfect defense against this problem, but a good start is to insist on transparency in the election technology, and to research useful technologies and procedures. It’s a hard problem, and we have a long way to go.