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Voting by Mail Is Convenient, But Not Always Secret

When people cast their ballots to be mailed in, they may not do so in complete secrecy.

This article is republished here with permission from The Conversation. This content is shared here because the topic may interest Snopes readers; it does not, however, represent the work of Snopes fact-checkers or editors.

Voting by mail in 2020 could be a real life-saver for American democracy, allowing tens of millions of people to participate in the election while limiting the spread of the pandemic. It’s widely available, popular, well-protected against fraud and doesn’t provide either political party with any special advantage. But mail-in voting carries its own risk to the integrity of the election.

The problem is that when people cast their ballots to be mailed in, they may not do so in complete secrecy. Our research for our forthcoming book, “Should Secret Voting Be Mandatory?” highlights exactly how crucial the secret ballot is to a healthy democracy.

The erosion of ballot secrecy

The voting-at-home trend in the U.S. has been on the rise at least since the 1990s, with little controversy. In the 2016 presidential election, a quarter of all ballots nationwide were cast by mail – including in the five states that have adopted all-mail voting.

Because of the risk of spreading – or contracting – COVID-19 by sharing indoor spaces with strangers, voting by mail has taken center stage as the 2020 election approaches.

But that gives up one key advantage of in-person voting at official polling places: a secure, safe environment in which every person can cast their ballot secretly.

The secret ballot is a deceptively simple, effective electoral institution. We believe its creation signaled the onset of true democracy. Too often taken for granted, the secret ballot remains a defining feature of legitimate elections worldwide.

Perils of voting without secrecy

Before modern voting procedures were created, there was a lively trade in votes. Employers, landlords, political operatives and even clergy exerted their influence on people who had to vote by voice or public show of hands. In places that used paper ballots, party agents handed out pre-marked, color-coded party “tickets” and watched as voters dropped them in the ballot boxes.

People could be – and were – bribed and threatened into voting for particular candidates, regardless of their personal views on the candidates or the issues.

In the mid-1850s, Australian officials created a way to protect voters from that sort of manipulation. The states of Massachusetts and New York brought the system to the U.S. in 1888. The key element is preserving official control of ballots throughout the electoral process. All votes must be cast in a public space, in the security of a private booth. All voters must use a uniform ballot form listing all candidates, which is available only from election officials at the polling site. The ballot, which is not labeled with any information identifying the voter, is returned to election officials in a confidential manner, and then counted.

That system ensures that all voters must vote in a way that cannot be observed. And no one can prove that any single person cast any particular ballot. Even the voter cannot prove to others how he or she voted. The process makes threats and bribes useless – because there is no way to verify a voter complied.

The adoption of the secret ballot dramatically reduced instances of electoral coercion. Researchers found that indicators of electoral corruption dropped – such as prices offered by those seeking to buy votes, the frequency of petitions challenging electoral results, and the rates at which incumbents are reelected.

Bribery and coercion, but not fraud

Mail-in voting still requires an official ballot, and can still be validated and counted anonymously. That eliminates what’s commonly known as voter fraud – where someone casts a ballot on behalf of someone else.

But it doesn’t address outside forces influencing the authentic voter at the moment they make their decision. The voter marks the ballot outside the supervision of election monitors – often…

David Mikkelson

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