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Small-Scale Question Sunday for August 20, 2023

Do you have a dumb question that you're kind of embarrassed to ask in the main thread? Is there something you're just not sure about?

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I know we've discussed voting policies at length, but something I keep returning to mentally is how it ever became an acceptable norm to implement mass mail-in ballots. Republicans (especially Trumpy ones) go on and on about susceptibility to fraud, and I certainly think there's something there, but it's not even my real objection. Even if you implement a system that I think incontrovertibly filters out all examples of identity fraud in voting and manage to get a full 1:1 match between the name on the ballot and the voter, I will still think that mass mail-in voting is an inherently corrupt system. The secret ballot is of such importance that it is enshrined in multiple international law settings; not that long ago, without the current valence of mail-in voting, I think I could have gotten almost everyone to agree that removing the secret ballot in favor of "assisted" voting inherently increases opportunities for coercion and vote-buying. Once we include ballot-harvesting, where low-propensity voters are "assisted" by people from campaigns, this is unmistakably a serious weakness to the traditional concept of secret ballots, with ample opportunity for intimidation, coercion, vote-buying, or using the mentally incompetent.

What puzzles me isn't so much why my opponents have decided that having people go door-knocking to collect ballots is a very important civil right, but why I don't really see anyone from the broader right arguing against this as a form of corrupt machine politics. Instead, they harp on about fraud, which might be a real concern, but is hard to prove and can't be scaled up the same way as sending political operatives around to do now-legal corruption. Why is there no organized campaign on the right to restore the secret ballot?

I have posted about secrecy in voting here before, and I included a discussion of the historical reason for adopting the "Australian ballot". This iswas a hugely important issue for a very long time, not in the sense that it was an important and controversial issue. No, it was hugely important and not controversial, at least among generally free countries.

Unlike how organizations like the ACLU officially changed course and explicitly disclaimed their prior views on vaccine mandates, my sense is that most organizations still overtly claim to value secrecy. Just a casual web search provides things from IPU:

Acknowledging and endorsing the fundamental principles relating to periodic free and fair elections that have been recognized by States in universal and regional human rights instruments, including the right of everyone to take part in the government of his or her country directly or indirectly through freely chosen representatives, to vote in such elections by secret ballot, to have an equal opportunity to become a candidate for election, and to put forward his or her political views, individually or in association with others,

From the Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP), U.S. Department of State:

Free and fair elections require:


Secret ballots — voting by secret ballot ensures that an individual's choice of party or candidate cannot be used against him or her.

USAID helpfully cites the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 21.3:

The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures

and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Article 25:

Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 231 and without unreasonable restrictions... To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors.

They call "secrecy of the ballot" a "core election-related international obligation" and define it in the annex as:

Secret ballot: Voters should be able to cast their ballot in secret without fear of intimidation. Ballots should not be able to be linked with individual voters.

If those organizations are a little too America-linked, here's OSCE, circa 2010:

Voting by secret ballot Voters should mark their ballots alone, in the privacy of a voting booth, and in such a way that the marked ballot cannot be seen before it is cast and cannot be later connected with a particular voter. Exceptions can be made only under specified conditions, such as at the request of voters who require assistance, e.g., disabled or illiterate voters. Any voting outside of a voting booth compromises the secrecy of the vote. The presence of more than one person in a voting booth should not be permitted, as it compromises the secrecy of the vote. Open voting or unlawful voting by proxies are violations of the secrecy principle. Arrangements for voting by members of the military and by prisoners should ensure their votes are secret and not subject to coercion.

Reading their COVID-era publication sheds some light on the difficulty:

The right to cast vote by secret ballot is another cornerstone of a democratic electoral process, enshrined in:

 1990 OSCE Copenhagen Document, paragraphs 5.1 and 7.4;

 1948 UDHR, Article 21;

 1966 ICCPR, Article 25;

 1996 UN HRC General Comment No. 25, paragraph 20;

 1953 ECHR, Additional Protocol, Article 3; and

 2002 VC Code of Good Practice, sections I.3.2 and I.4.

Effective protection of secrecy of the vote is one of the key challenges posed by some alternative voting methods, particularly when voting takes place outside the controlled environment of polling stations, such as postal or Internet voting, or when voters' choices are revealed to their appointed representatives, as in the case of proxy voting. Secrecy should therefore be at the forefront of decision-making when introducing or expanding the use of alternative voting methods. It requires safeguards in law and regulations, as well as due care and proactive steps by polling staff to protect it and to prevent any breaches. The importance of the secrecy of the vote, as well as measures taken to protect it should be addressed in civic and voter education programmes, as well as through prompt investigation by law enforcement bodies of its potential violation.

Secrecy considerations are also central in the context of polling station layout and set-up, equipment used, as well as in voter processing and flow management. They need to remain as one of the priorities when considering adjustments to polling station arrangements, including any special measures to mitigate public health risks

They continue in detail:

The secrecy of the vote may also be challenged by remote voting systems like postal voting, as it takes place without the presence of election officials or observers. Postal voting also provides for less oversight of certain behaviours, like influencing the vote of others and family voting. States, nevertheless, have an obligation to take measures to ensure that the principle of secrecy is maintained.

Ballot delivery, marking, and counting systems used in postal voting present considerable and unique challenges to the integrity of elections. There are several commonly used procedural safeguards for voting by mail, such as ballot secrecy envelopes, witness requirements and signature verification. However, these technical solutions may not be enough to instill confidence in postal voting if there is diminished public trust in electoral processes and administration.

You can just tell that they know that this is a problem. They know that their 2010 position was widely considered to be the correct position for good reasons. They even point out some of those good reasons. But what can be done about it? "Eh." Probably nothing. Why yes, everyone must obviously agree with the position that ensuring strict voter secrecy is, in principle, an obligation of States holding free and fair elections, but it just doesn't seem like we can figure out any specific advice to make it actually work, since it's, like, not 2010 anymore. So, well, if we can't come up with any good ideas to actually implement the principle in the face of the concrete thing that we want to do right now, the "principle" will just be attested to verbally, as a signalling mechanism, while we proceed in just trodding all over it.

It's absolutely maddening from a historical and theoretical perspective. What's worse is that it threatens to be yet another issue where we had broad consensus across essentially the entire free world, but now could end up being another issue associated with "loony Trumpists", making it ripe for the chopping block. The impact may not be felt today, or even in the next decade... but I cannot imagine what the long-term consequences could be of simply jettisoning this principle for the rest of time.