Scrap the "secret" ballot and return to open voting
By Lynn Landes
Online Journal Contributing Writer
Nov 4, 2005, 15:44
The problem is
worldwide. 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"
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.
exceptions, election officials around the world are certifying election results
based on anonymous and untraceable ballots. And contrary to a growing legion of
election statisticians, exit polls are not an adequate check on election
results. It's ridiculous when you think about it, using anonymous exit polls to
verify anonymous ballot results.
The entire voting
process should be 100 percent transparent. To that end, I am proposing a protocol
for Open Voting with Total Transparency (OVTT):
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."
It's simple and
straightforward. But, is it too extreme? Not at all. Citizens today may be
surprised to learn that the world's democracies were not founded on the secret
ballot. Quite the contrary. Voting was a public process where qualified
citizens voted openly, either by voice or on paper. People took pride in
standing up and being counted. Then things changed.
The secret ballot
concept originated in Australia in 1856. It began to be used in American
elections after the Civil War. The secret ballot was sold to the public as a
weapon against voter intimidation and vote selling. The downside risk, that a
secret ballot system actually facilitates ballot tampering by restricting
public oversight, apparently lost out in the debate.
In fact, three
voting practices were introduced during the post-Civil War era that severely
limited, if not destroyed, meaningful public oversight of the voting process:
1) absentee voting, 2) the use of voting machines, and 3) the secret ballot.
Absentee voting has always been problematic, which is why many states and
nations restrict its use. Voting machines are under increasing scrutiny due to
their inherent non-transparency, which is why most countries have chosen not to
use them. Amazingly however, the secret ballot has dodged public scrutiny, so
It appears that
since 1892, when Grover Cleveland became the first American president to be
elected by the secret ballot, neither constitutional scholars nor voting rights
activists have seriously questioned the wisdom or logic of its use. I was no
exception. We all failed to recognize the obvious.
Secret ballots and
transparency in government are mutually exclusive concepts.
For the past few
years I've been promoting transparency in the voting process as a guard against
vote fraud. To me, 'transparency' meant that voters should use paper ballots
and hand-counts on Election Day (i.e., no machines, no absentee ballots, and no
early voting). It's a position I still hold today, for it is critical that
local judges of elections, poll watchers, and the press have the opportunity to
observe the process and identify voters in person. (I often use jury duty as an
example; citizens have to be in court 'in person' in order to participate.)
However, all these safeguards taken together do not provide 100 percent
transparency; they are not enough to protect elections against widespread and,
often undetectable, ballot tampering. The only way to stop that kind of vote
fraud is to voter-certify ballots and make that information a matter of public
record and review.
unwittingly) been nudging people in this direction. In response to the
questionable use of exit polls as a check on official election results, I
proposed in a January 18, 2005, article the idea of Parallel Elections. It
works like this: Parallel Election volunteers set up tables outside of polling
precincts on Election Day. They ask citizens to vote in both the Parallel and
the Official elections. In order to use the "Parallel" ballot as an
unofficial affidavit in election challenges, voters are asked to put their
name, address, and signature on their ballots.
Citizens in Florida
and California have already conducted Parallel Elections in some precincts. In
San Diego this past July, Parallel Election organizers used their results to
win a recount (although it was a brand new election that was actually needed;
recounts of anonymous ballots that have sat in the election board's office for
days or weeks on end, and, therefore, may have been tampered with, cannot be
considered reliable evidence of the voters' intent).
Thus far, Parallel
Election organizers have reported a good deal of voter enthusiasm, enjoying an
approximate 50 percent participation rate at the polls, with as many
Republicans as Democrats participating. So, it seems that many people will
accept a return to public voting. And interest is growing. California, Florida,
and Texas will all host Parallel Elections this month.
A few researchers
and activists have proposed other ways that citizens might be able to check
that their vote is counted correctly. They suggest that each ballot have a
number or bar code, so that any voter could look up their own ballot at the
election office or online. However, there's a flaw in that argument. Although
the voter may be able to verify his or her personal ballot, they would not be
able to see how everyone else voted, and therefore, would not be able to
authenticate overall election results.
Secrecy rarely does
anyone any good. And secrecy in voting is particularly senseless. It has
produced a series of disastrous, if not unintended consequences. Due to its
anonymity and non-transparency, the secret ballot has made vote fraud easier
not harder, particularly for those in a position of power, such as election
officials and voting machine technicians. The secret ballot also promotes a
highly dubious double standard; on the one hand, we demand that our elected
officials vote publicly, while we the electorate skulk around concerned that
someone might find out who we voted for. What are we afraid of? That our boss
will fire us, or our customers desert us, or family and friends shun us? Most
Americans are registered Democrat or Republican, anyway. So, our preference is
already known. As far as voter intimidation and vote selling are concerned,
legislators are open to the same risks and temptations, so why make a
distinction? Why hold elected officials to a higher standard than we impose on
Since the courts
and state legislatures will probably not support open voting any time soon (if
ever), it's up to the voters to lead the way. The best thing to do is to hold
your own Parallel Elections outside the polls. (See the Parallel Elections Project.)
However, if that's
not possible, then you can send the candidate(s) of your choice a brief letter
certifying that you voted for them (include your name, address, and signature).
They may be able to use your letter as an affidavit in an election challenge.
You could send your letter after the election, but ideally, the letter should
be sent at least a week or two before the election. That way candidates can
have as good idea as possible as to how the "official" election
results should go, and, therefore, will not to tempted to concede prematurely.
(Keep in mind that vote fraud and/or system failures have produced false
election "landslides" in the past). In the case of referendums or
initiatives, send it to organizations or individuals who have a vested interest
in the outcome.
to this idea was put into practice last winter in North Carolina. According to
a February 6, 2005, editorial in the Ashville Citizen-Times, " . . . a
voting machine error . . . caused 4,400 votes to vanish in Carteret County. As
(candidate) Troxler led in the count by 2,287 votes in a race that saw more
than 3 million votes cast, the missing votes threw the outcome into disarray.
Troxler's campaign rounded up affidavits from more than 1,400 Carteret voters
who said they had voted for him." As a result, his opponent conceded.
Fathers set us a timeless example of courage under fire. John Hancock's large
and flamboyant signature on the Declaration of Independence was an act of
bravery in the face of certain hardship and possible death. We cannot continue
conducting elections under a cloak of secrecy, behaving more like cowards than
conscientious citizens. Today, more than ever before, it is our right and
obligation to stand up and be counted.
Lynn Landes is one of the nation's leading
journalists on voting technology and democracy issues. She has also written on
the subject of the environment and health. Readers can find her articles and
research at EcoTalk.org. Formerly, Lynn was a news reporter for DUTV and
commentator for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Contact info: firstname.lastname@example.org / (215)
Copyright © 1998-2006 Online Journal
Email Online Journal Editor