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Scrap the "Secret" Ballot - Return to Open Voting

Scrap the "Secret" Ballot - Return to Open Voting


By Lynn Landes
11/4/05

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" ballot.

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.

With few 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% transparent. To that end, I am proposing a protocol for Open Voting with Total Transparency (OVTT):

"Voting shall 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 far.

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% 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.

I've (somewhat 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% 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 ourselves?

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 - http://www.ecotalk.org/ParallelElections.htm

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.

Something similar 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.

Our Founding 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: lynnlandes@earthlink.net / (215) 629-3553

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