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Culture War Roundup for the week of January 16, 2023

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Secrecy in Voting

Why have it? What's it for? I've told the story of the "Australian ballot" here before:

When Australia was colonized by the Brits, they used it as a penal colony. Of course, they didn't go full Lord of the Flies with the convicts, but sent good, upstanding Brits to run the place and maintain good order. After serving out their sentences, many convicts did have the option of returning to Britain, but lots of them chose to stay. They were free citizens, but obviously, their jibs were cut a bit differently than the better class of good, upstanding Brits who were sent to run the place. The convicts were even free to run for elected office, and some even did. Yet somehow, confusingly, even as time went on and there were many more freed convicts than there were good, upstanding Brits, none of these convicts ever won any elections. Maybe everyone just realized that it was better if good, upstanding Brits continued running the place.

Other folks disagreed, and they managed to implement the 'Australian ballot', where each individual's vote would be totally, completely secret. Suddenly, magically, freed convicts began winning elections and were able to curtail some of the harshest abuses curious practices of the good, upstanding Brits.

Fundamentally, this is a story of coercion. If someone is able to learn how you're going to vote or how you voted, they can apply coercion to get you to change your vote or try to inflict punishments on you after-the-fact in retaliation for voting the "wrong way". Some people are also worried about bribes, but that's a more minor concern in my view. Critically, in order to perform coercion/bribing, they need to be able to discover who you actually vote for, so as to properly verify whether you should be punished or paid for doing the deed "poorly" or "well". Naturally, if someone is going to apply coercion to guide your vote, they're probably willing to apply coercion to get you to provide proof.

There is a reason why people who are working on digital elections really care about a property known as "receipt freeness", that is, that there is no possible way that anyone, even the voter herself, possesses any information whatsoever which could be used as a receipt to prove how a person voted. The ideal would be for the government to be able to publicize an encrypted database which cannot in any way be used to demonstrate how any person voted, but that each individual can take with them a piece of information which can be combined with this database to verify that their vote was correctly counted (yet still not reveal how they voted).

In any event, the linked opinion from Arizona.

The Secrecy Clause states, "All elections by the people shall be by ballot, or by such other method as may be prescribed by law; Provided that secrecy in voting shall be preserved."


When the Arizona Constitution was adopted, the definitions of "secrecy" included "the state or quality of being hidden; concealment[.]" Secrecy, New Websterian Dictionary, 735 (1912). "Preserve" definitions included "to keep from injury; defend; uphold; save; keep in a sound state[.]" Preserve, New Websterian Dictionary, 646. Thus, the Secrecy Clause's meaning is clear: when providing for voting by ballot or any other method, the legislature must uphold voters' ability to conceal their choices. The constitution does not mandate any particular method for preserving secrecy in voting.

"voters' ability to conceal their choices". They have shifted from 'inability to reveal' to 'ability to conceal'. Why have it? What's it for?

Arizona's mail-in voting laws preserve secrecy in voting by requiring voters to ensure they fill out their ballot in secret and seal the ballot in an envelope that does not disclose the voters' choices. Section 16-548(A) provides:

The early voter shall make and sign the affidavit and shall then mark his ballot in such a manner that his vote cannot be seen.


Plaintiffs contend that because mail-in voters may photograph their ballot and post it on the internet, Arizona laws do not preserve secrecy in voting. Plaintiffs point to § 16-515(G), which states, "Notwithstanding § 16-1018, a person may not take photographs or videos while within the seventy-five foot limit" around polling locations. Section 16-1018 makes it a class two misdemeanor for a person to "[s]how[ ] another voter's ballot to any person after it is prepared for voting in such a manner as to reveal the contents, except to an authorized person lawfully assisting the voter," but "[a] voter who makes available an image of the voter's own ballot by posting on the internet or in some other electronic medium is deemed to have consented to retransmittal of that image and that retransmittal does not constitute a violation of this section."

We do not read § 16-1018(A)(4) as failing to preserve secrecy in mail-in voting. Section 16-1018(A)(4) merely provides a defense to the crime of showing another's ballot to any person after it is prepared. The defense applies when a person shows another voter's ballot if the voter who filled out that ballot posted the image online. And the legislature's decision not to prohibit a mail-in voter from showing her own marked ballot to another, whether in person or online, does not violate the Secrecy Clause because the legislature has commanded mail-in voters to "mark [her] ballot in such a manner that [her] vote cannot be seen."

Ah yes, the legislature has commanded that it not be seen. Except by the entire internet. Or literally anyone else that she chooses to show (or is coerced into showing) it to. I have almost no words except again, "Why have it? What's it for?" The court here seems to embrace a position that is completely ignorant of even the possibility of coercion. Or maybe it's not the purpose of secrecy that they fail to understand; maybe it's the purpose of photography. Photography is meant to allow a thing to be seen by someone at a time/place other than the original moment/location, even if the original object is long gone or destroyed. Taking a photograph of a thing and then showing it to someone else literally has the purpose of making that thing become "seen" by the someone else.

But photography is honestly a silly aside. Does anyone believe that there is a meaningful distinction between a voter showing a coercer/briber their ballot directly versus a photo of their ballot? Play this out in the absurd: A holds B at gunpoint, telling B to vote for candidate C. B marks down the ballot, and begins to reach out to show her work. "NO! Don't show it to me! That would be illegal. Instead, take out your phone; take a picture of it; show me the picture. That's totally legal and totally cool."

Haranguing about photography is clearly beside the point. The point is coercion! Preventing coercion is why we have secrecy in voting! Preventing coercion is what it's for! And one neat trick to 100% prevent it is to make it 100% impossible for anyone else to discover who you voted for - even if you want to show them. As evidenced by the entire body of literature on receipt-freeness, this is a thing that has been abundantly clear to the tech community, and those guys are usually some of the most boneheaded and slowest to understand history/politics.

Maybe one last attempt at words. This feels like watching a real life version of "catastrophic forgetting" in AI. How can people suddenly just have no clue what the whole point of this entire thing was, especially because you were just using it in all this work?

If I were bribed or coerced into voting a certain way and my proof was a photograph posted electronically I could just use photoshop to fake my vote.

In balance this really isn't a legitimate concern. We aren't frisking in-person voters for contraband cameras either.

Laws and judges have to take practically and other rights and priciples into account. Technology has thrown some wrenches into the machinery. Dogmatically adhering to a priciple (vote secrecy to curtail bribery or coercion) over a more important principle (voter enfranchisement) with no evidence that bribery or coercion is even occuring and in contempt of the clear, pricipled intention of our democratically elected legislatures, paints those proponents as unpricipled and intellectually dishonest.

But photoshop makes the arguement moot on its own. Technology simultaneously created and solved a hypothedical problem.

I think this falls under the category of, "No law is ever going to be 100% successful. We don't hold any other law that you like to this standard, so we shouldn't hold this law to that standard, either." Take your example:

We aren't frisking in-person voters for contraband cameras either.

Correct. We've figured that this is a pretty significant imposition on one's person, one that can be exploited by bad actors to suppress votes (similar to poll tests). However, what you miss is that the law actually does make it illegal to take a picture of your in-person ballot. We still make it illegal! We still will prosecute people if they get caught doing it! That we don't apply 100% of the world's resources to rooting out 100% of all possible cases would be a silly standard by which to judge this law. (Thus, as you say, "Laws and judges have to take practically and other rights and priciples into account.") Hell, our extremely strict laws against murder don't eliminate 100% of murder. We don't say, "Well, unless we prohibit any individual from ever possessing any object that could be used to aid in murder and impose a panopticon surveillance state, we'll never get rid of the theoretical possibility of murder happening... Therefore, we shouldn't bother prohibiting murder at all." That would be ridiculously silly, and it's silly here, too.

We have basic rules in place that nearly perfectly work, except for the barest of theoretical edge cases. So, when you say that technology has thrown some wrenches into the machinery, I agree. It has really made non-in-person voting far more susceptible to coercion than it was before. Photoshop has not solved the problem, for our technology can just as easily take video which is not nearly as amenable to manipulation (though I highly doubt that a significant portion of folks who would be targets of coercive efforts would likely be skilled enough in even Photoshop to matter).

Furthermore, there is no evidence that allowing easy means by which to curtail secrecy actually causes even the minutest amount of voter disenfranchisement.

In the end, I think reasonable people can disagree on where the balance of interests lay. The primary thrust of my post is that folks seem to have completely forgotten the barest purpose of secrecy in voting. From your comment, I think you understand this purpose.

/u/2rafa suggests an easy fix: mail out two ballots, so you can fill out one and take a picture of the other. I'm not sure if this causes problems by double-voting; how much of voting security is the trivial inconvenience of producing a duplicate ballot?

Alternatively you can just go after people posting photos. If you slap fines on the first hundred or thousand, the others should desist.

With 2 ballots I, the coercer simply make you take a picture of both filled out. I suppose making ballots free to print as many as you like and having a secret keyphrase which must be on 'real' ballots cast could help, but if the phrase is compromised, or the fake phrases you put on your coerced ballots don't match up, I will realisze your trick and punish you.

Best solution I can think of is mail a secured tablet to each voter, which is covered in cameras and records the voting session, only allowing those votes not recorded or with witnesses. This can still be bypassed by hidden cameras, as can normal voting, and is expensive.

With how important secret ballots seem to be to government, I'm surprised they aren't used in industry. I believe most if not all shareholder voting is public. I wonder if the secret ballot is more to legitimize elections and make the governed more compliant than it is to ensure a vital process. That would explain the posturing, but lack of real security measures.

I think the real answer is that a few people voluntarily try to relinquish secrecy in order to try and create peer pressure (and that's vile), but there's no serious push to defeat secret voting going on.

Nobody's worried because nobody thinks there's a serious risk.

I can see it. Controlling people's ideas and behavior outside of voting with propaganda and norms already does waaay more than a forceful system focused on elections could ever hope to achieve, and I don't think I've heard of one place which successfully got rid of the secret ballot.

Couldn’t blockchain somehow save voting? Where everyone who wanted to could go online and count the votes and everyone could verify their vote was recorded correctly by having a private key to their specific Vote.

There are clever extremely complicated mathematical schemes involving it that have all the good properties you want. But still remains two big flaws: you have to use a computer to vote (which can be compromised) and you have to trust an algorithm that is formally proven correct to count the votes, but only a handful of people are educated on how to read such proofs.

Ultimately, in person anonymous paper ballot with public counting is the superior system for a Republic as we understand it today.

As a resident crypto fanatic I agree with this analysis. In a better world crypto solves this but we're not there yet.

Crypto doesn't solve the problem with remote voting. If you can vote from home, you can vote in front of your spouse. If you can vote in front of your spouse, then your spouse can coerce you into doing so and control how you vote.

That gets you "nobody can see my vote", but you can still be coerced into showing your vote. There are clever algorithms using homomorphic encryption which allow votes to be tallied without revealing who voted for whom, and let you verify that your vote was counted without revealing what it was. But you still need someone to implement it in a system which selects lowest-bid contracts, and to convince the voting public that your magic math system cannot be cheated.

People need to understand a voting system to believe in it (see: 2020), and so I'd much rather a heavy clampdown on postal voting, and a return to hand-counting everywhere. Other first world nations can do this, so why can't we?

There are clever algorithms using homomorphic encryption which allow votes to be tallied without revealing who voted for whom, and let you verify that your vote was counted without revealing what it was.

As a very simple example of a system I've occasionally pondered -- which I'm not sure I'd describe as "homomorphic encryption" per se, more a zero-knowledge proof of election outcomes. "For each ballot, the voter calls a fair coin toss. If they win, keep the ballot. If they lose, replace it with a randomly selected ballot. Final resulting ballots are public, but the initial coin flip is never recorded." This is overwhelmingly likely to not change the outcome of the election, and any specific ballot can be verified by voters but they will be unable to convince a third party that the recorded vote for Kang was the result of the coin toss and that they intended to vote for Kodos.

convince the voting public that your magic math system cannot be cheated.

Yeah, this is really the hard part. I don't think I'd trust a coin toss even in my presence to decide something so important. I know abstractly that the statistics work out, but it feels viscerally disenfranchising.

I know abstractly that the statistics work out, but it feels viscerally disenfranchising.

It sounds to me like your instincts are picking up the increased potential for someone to sneakily cheat under these systems. As a voter, can you tell that the coin toss you're making is fair without referring to outside expertise? If it takes an expert to make the determination that part of the system is working correctly, it gets much easier to cheat.

Ballot harvesting specifically is more of a problem than postal voting in general. The mafia boss standing outside the polling station can’t confirm I voted for him, but I could also text him a picture of my 100% legit postal ballot that I printed off the internet and have zero intention of mailing in. He doesn’t have the manpower to watch the whole town sit in their kitchen, fill it in to vote for him, seal it in the envelope and then mail it themselves. If he can ballot harvest them, though, checking becomes easier.

Maybe one last attempt at words. This feels like watching a real life version of "catastrophic forgetting" in AI. How can people suddenly just have no clue what the whole point of this entire thing was, especially because you were just using it in all this work?

An alternative explanation is that you're not being cynical enough. Perhaps this isn't AI catastrophically forgetting; this is AI becoming unfriendly. Arizona legislators want to be able to harm voters who voted the wrong way. They are in the same position as British-Australian governors: already in power, and intending to use the implied threat of punishment, to stay there.