Do we have and do we need the Secret Ballot?

Do we have and do we need the Secret Ballot?

This blog post examines how recent changes to voting methods in the US have compromised the secret ballot and then discusses the elimination of the secret ballot.

Secret Ballots

By 1892, US elections were generally held using the secret ballot. This was sometimes called the Australian Ballot because Australia is credited with being the first place where secret ballots were in widespread use (even though the concept exists in other historical contexts).

A secret ballot is usually defined with these traits:

  1. There is an official printed ballot. Prior to 1892, some states and localities used oral ballots. The ballot is printed by the government.
  2. The ballot contains the names of the candidates and proposals. Many states and localities also have provisions for writing in a candidate’s name. The rules vary widely.
  3. An official ballot is available only at the polling place. This means that a person or organization cannot obtain large numbers of official ballots for people to carry into polling places and “stuff” into the ballot box. Many Americans will note that newspapers publish sample ballots and election websites have sample ballots. But these are always identified as sample.
  4. The ballot is marked in secret, that is, no one watches the person marking the ballot. As technology has advanced, we have expanded this concept to mean that there is no way to tie a particular ballot to an individual voter.

While not a trait specifically of the secret ballot, this methodology provides that everyone votes within a very narrow time window, usually all on the same day. This ensures that all voters vote using the same information.

A couple of things should be noted about secret ballot implementation:

  1. Our methods are not perfect, but in practice have worked quite well. For example, since we publish counts of votes by precincts, if only one person shows up to vote in a precinct, that citizen’s vote is known to everyone.
  2. It is very challenging to develop methods of implementing secret ballots which also allow for auditability, that is, the ability to verify that the votes have not been altered or that false votes have not been introduced. With high-tech voting means, such as computers, this conflict has intensified. The computer science academic community was nearly unanimous in its opposition to computerized voting machines for this reason.
  3. Secret ballots pose special challenges for people who cannot see or do not have the physical ability to mark a ballot.
  4. When voters speak different languages, then ballot production is complicated. In a nation with a dominant language in its politics, government, and business like the USA, it is reasonable to ask whether anyone who does not know English can be enough in touch with the issues to vote, but that is a big topic for another day.
  5. Some voters might not be available to come to the polling place on election day (or days, although that is not used in the US). They might be in the hospital, be away for business or vacation, or be incapacitated. Until recently, this problem was met by the use of an “absentee” ballot. A voter could apply ahead of time for an absentee ballot and was required to state a legitimate reason for using it. The ballot was mailed to the voter and the voter mailed it back to the board of elections. Clearly, a person with such a ballot could be subject to intimidation since another party might be watching them fill out the ballot, but since the numbers of absentee ballots were quite small, this was never considered to be a problem. Generally, when a voter requested an absentee ballot, their name was noted on the voter rolls and they were not permitted to vote at the polling place. If they failed to send in their absentee ballot, they could not vote.

Why Do We Want Secret Ballots

Without secret ballots, voters can be subject to pressure from many sources. For example, an employer might threaten to terminate an employee if he does vote as directed. Thugs at polling places could intimidate voters threatening physical harm if they voted a certain way. Social intimidation from friends could occur. In fact, all of these problems existed prior to the use of secret ballot and were among the reasons for adopting the secret ballot.

What Has Happened

Since 2000, many changes have occurred in voting in the USA. On change has been the use of computerized voting machines, in spite of warnings from technical experts that they are not safe from tampering. Unfortunately, due to the nature of some kinds of tampering, we have no way to know if such tampering has occurred, which is a serious question.

Another major change has been the introduction of universal mail-in voting, such as used in the state of Washington, and more broadly, the use of early voting. With early voting, the methodology of absentee ballots has been extended to everyone without having to state a reason. Early voting can occur in multiple ways and can differ state to state:

  1. A voter goes to the board of elections and fills out a ballot.
  2. A voter requests an early ballot by mail and mails it in.
  3. Ballots are provided to voters by other citizens, for example, to people living in nursing homes, for them to fill out and have mailed in. When this procedure is allowed, there is no tracking available for who has an early voting ballot in his/her hands.

With early voting, such votes must be turned in some days before the general election so that the voter rolls can be marked to note which voters have voted using early voting so that they cannot also vote at the polling place.

Before we note how these procedures are the death of the secret ballot, note that widespread early voting also violates the principle of all (or nearly all) votes being cast in a narrow time window, and thus based on the same information.

Early voting violates at least two of the four principles of the secret ballot.

Principle 3, that official ballots are distributed only at the polling place, is clearly violated. Technically absentee ballots violated this principle, but first there were few such ballots and second careful records were kept of who got an absentee ballot. This means that ballots were not generally available and subject to abuse.

Principle 4, that ballots are marked in secret, is violated. This is because a person or group intent on intimidation may demand that people subject to them (e.g. employees, gang members) fill out an early voting ballot in their presence. It is this critical problem that truly ends the secret ballot in America!

Furthermore, early voting enables a partisan group, even a political party itself, to seek out incompetent, or semi-competent voters and “help” them fill out ballots (i.e. fill out ballots for the person). At a polling place, rules are in place to assist those with restrictions such as blindness or physical limitations on writing, but the voter still must be able to select their choices by themselves. No such procedures can be enforced with mass early voting.


Voting procedures have been subject to many abuses in American history. I do not argue that our recent changes in procedure are the first time abuses have been possible or used. However, it seems very tragic that we have allowed such an important bedrock of citizen choice as the secret ballot to be so quickly compromised in the name of convenience. The absentee ballot system worked well for decades for voters who truly cared that their votes counted.

The Question of Access

Before asking the question of whether we need the secret ballot any more, I want to address the question of access which is what drove large scale “early voting”. With so many people working odd hours etc., fewer people can realistically get to the polls during the few hours they are open. I believe a better answer to this problem is to implement:

  • Have the polls open longer, perhaps 2 days including a Saturday.
  • Allow early voting, perhaps up to 6 days early, at regional centers (more than one per county but far less than one per precinct).
  • Return to the system in which absentee ballots can only be obtained by showing reasonable cause.

This measures should minimize the number of people who use absentee ballots which are an inconvenience to the voter.

Do we Need the Secret Ballot

Since mass early balloting was implemented, there has been very, very little mention of how this system compromises the secret ballot. We might conclude that citizens no longer care about the secret ballot. Is it because the citizens don’t know or don’t care? If they don’t care, we could formally eliminate the secret ballot which would create other advantages in the design of voting systems such as:

  • All votes could be recorded online and voters could verify their votes providing a powerful check and balance.
  • If fraudulent votes are discovered such as finding that a person who is no longer alive voted, then those votes could be removed from the tally retrospectively.
  • Online voting would become practical due to the ability to associate a ballot with an individual voter in the auditing process.

My Conclusion

I believe that the secret ballot is a very powerful guard of the integrity of the voting process whose value has simply been forgotten over the years. I think that preserving the secret ballot is more important than the technical advantages gained by eliminating (or compromising it). I think the current system is in some ways the worst of all worlds: the secret ballot is compromised, yet few people realize this has happened, and we are unable to enjoy the technical advantages of non-secret balloting.