Yesterday I wrote about the recent erosion of the secret ballot. One cause is the change in voting technology, especially voting by mail. But even if we don’t change our voting technology at all, changes in other technologies are still eroding the secret ballot.
Phonecams are a good example. You probably carry into the voting booth a silent camera, built into a mobile phone, that can transmit photos around the world within seconds. Many phones can shoot movies, making it even easier to document your vote. Here is an example shot in 2004.
Could such a video be faked? Probably. But if your employer or union boss threatens your job unless you deliver a video of yourself voting “correctly”, will you bet your job that your fake video won’t be detected? I doubt it.
This kind of video recording subverts the purpose of the voting booth. The booth is designed to ensure the secret ballot by protecting voters from being observed while voting. Now a voter can exploit the privacy of the voting booth to create evidence of his vote. It’s not an exact reversal – at least the phonecam attack requires the voter’s participation – but it’s close.
One oft-suggested approach to fighting this problem is to have a way to revise your vote later, or to vote more than once with only one of the votes being real. This approach sounds promising at first, but it seems to cause other problems.
For example, imagine that you can get as many absentee ballots as you want, but only one of them counts and the others will be ignored. Now if somebody sees you complete and mail in a ballot, they can’t tell whether they saw your real vote. But if this is going to work, there must be no way to tell, just by looking at a ballot, whether it is real. The Board of Elections can’t send you an official letter saying which ballot is the real one – if they did, you could show that letter to a third party. (They could send you multiple letters, but that wouldn’t help – how could you tell which letter was the real one?) They can notify you orally, in person, but that makes it harder to get a ballot and lets the clerk at the Board of Elections quietly disenfranchise you by lying about which ballot is real.
(I’m not saying this problem is impossible to solve, only that (a) it’s harder than you might expect, and (b) I don’t know a solution.)
Approaches where you can cancel or revise your vote later have similar problems. There can’t be a “this is my final answer” button, because you could record yourself pushing it. But if there is no way to rule out later revisions to your vote, then you have to worry about somebody else coming along later and changing your vote.
Perhaps the hardest problem in voting system design is how to reconcile the secret ballot with accuracy. Methods that protect secrecy tend to undermine accuracy, and vice versa. Clever design is needed to get enough secrecy and enough accuracy at the same time. Technology seems to be making this tradeoff even nastier.