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Should secret voting be mandatory? ‘Yes’ say political scientists

October 26, 2020
Voter peers from behind ballot curtain with an American flag in foreground.Several countries haves introduced postal voting, on-demand absentee balloting, early voting in person, or internet voting in response to low voter turnout. “Such measures threaten electoral integrity,” argue Rochester political scientist James Johnson and coauthor Susan Orr in their new book, “Should Secret Voting Be Mandatory?” (Getty Images photo)

In a new book, two scholars argue that making voting more convenient does not combat low voter turnout but instead jeopardizes the integrity of the ballot.

About the authors

James Johnson is a professor of political science at the University of Rochester. His current research runs the gamut from pragmatist political thought and democratic theory, to the philosophy of social science and cultural theories of politics. He is the coauthor of The Priority of Democracy: Political Consequences of Pragmatism (Princeton University Press, 2011).

Susan Orr is an associate professor of political science at the College of Brockport, State University of New York. Her primary research focuses on the politics of organized labor in the US where Orr explores how unions and union membership affect political outcomes and engagement. Together, Orr and Johnson are the coauthors of Should Secret Voting Be Mandatory? (Polity, November 2020).

According to recent studies, confidence in elections has declined twice as fast as confidence in democracy, which has also plummeted around the world. Political scientists are concerned about ever-diminishing voter turnout and unequal voter participation.

The future of democracy, it seems, is dire.

In response to low turnout at the polls, several countries have introduced a plethora of policies aimed at making the voting process more convenient—such as postal voting, on-demand absentee balloting, early voting in person, and internet voting. In the United States, about one quarter of all voters opted to cast their votes by mail in the 2016 presidential election.

But there are two problems with these convenience measures.

First, “there is little evidence that such initiatives expand participation in inclusive ways,” say University of Rochester political science professor James Johnson and Susan Orr, an associate professor of political science at the State University of New York Brockport. In other words, voting by mail does not make more people vote, nor does it really increase the participation of minorities.

Second, and arguably more importantly, the security of the ballot is not guaranteed if voting takes place at home.

“Such measures threaten electoral integrity,” the political scientists write in their forthcoming book Should Secret Voting Be Mandatory? (Polity, November 2020). The coauthors—a husband-and-wife team—argue that some of these convenience measures undermine the very ballot secrecy that was originally introduced to prevent intimidation and bribery of voters—practices which have started to reemerge.

How to fix low turnout and low confidence in elections

Experts agree that increasing voter participation is vital to restoring faith in the democratic processes. That’s why the duo argues that voting in person by secret ballot should be compulsory: “Flatly, we oppose the widespread adoption of policies that make voting more convenient,” they write.

Why? For starters, not everyone who votes at home can do so in complete privacy.

Imagine, for example, that an employer offers to witness your ballot and to mail it for you. Or a landlord sends someone to collect your rent along with your ballot and requests that the envelope remain open. What of immigrants with limited language abilities who encounter a party operative who offers to help in completing the ballot? Or an abusive parent or spouse who insists on the family’s voting together at the kitchen table? The possibilities for abuse and undue influence are myriad if secret voting cannot be ensured, Orr says.

Given the COVID-19 pandemic, voting by mail this November would allow tens of millions of people to participate safely. Yet there are risks to the integrity of the voting. The coauthors are careful to distinguish between outright fraud on one hand—think “stuffing the ballot box” or “losing” ballots—and what they call “electoral domination” on the other. The latter describes efforts by relatively wealthy, powerful, or well-placed people to interfere—more or less directly—with the voting choices of those who are less influential.

“Most of the recent public concern regarding voting by mail in the upcoming election focuses on fraud,” says Johnson, who deems that unease to be “largely misguided.” Yet when it comes to opening the door to electoral domination, the two political scientists are worried.

Such illicit interference can involve bribing or intimidating voters, says Johnson, where the aim is to influence voter choice, but “not to circumvent it.”

Mandatory voting and secret ballots—a necessary tandem

That’s why mandatory voting and the secret ballot “are best thought of in tandem,” they write. “In combination they help secure the quality of electoral participation in ways that neither does on its own.”

The authors concede that while legally forcing people to vote infringes on a person’s freedom to stay home on election day, they argue that a secret ballot and mandatory voting would prevent attempts at buying votes or manipulating voter turnout.


Susan Orr and James Johnson.

(l-r) Susan Orr, associate professor of political science at the State University of New York Brockport, and James Johnson, political science professor at the University of Rochester (University of Rochester photo / Sandra Knispel)

How did the idea of the secret ballot become so integral to democracy?

Susan Orr: It was originally introduced as a reform in the late 19th century to address persistent and widespread electoral domination. At the time, it was viewed as a radical measure. But by the mid-20th century the secret ballot was accepted as integral to the political rights to democratic participation and enunciated in, for example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1966. It may seem minor, but it really contributes to the integrity of elections, with the hope that outcomes accurately capture the views of citizens. 

Do you worry about the secrecy of ballots?

James Johnson: Since the introduction of the secret ballot, voters complete their ballots in public at a polling site where secrecy is observed, which has made attempts to buy votes and coerce voters almost impossible. That’s because ballot secrecy makes it impossible for someone who wants to purchase a vote or coerce a voter—to monitor compliance. Having no way to verify compliance makes vote buying and voter intimidation futile. The increasing turn to mail-in voting and the craze of taking “ballot selfies” both aim to increase voter turnout in the face of declining voter participation. However, despite the good motivations behind them, both are problematic because they undermine ballot secrecy.

Orr: If voting takes place at home rather than in a polling place, vulnerable voters can be bribed and intimidated—there’s little secrecy when voting. If ballot selfies are legal, anyone could be pressured to vote in compliance with the wishes of another person and send a selfie to prove that compliance.

Why should secret voting be mandatory in this country? How would one ensure that?

Johnson: The secret ballot is important—when properly implemented, it effectively mitigates electoral domination. Ballot secrecy works by making it impossible to credibly report to others how we cast our ballot. It effectively constrains the ability of those bent on electoral domination to bribe or intimidate us. They will not carry out a costly threat or pay a promised bribe without proof that we’ve carried out our part of the deal. This whole concept relies on secrecy’s being mandatory and being institutionalized by a set of familiar institutional rules. In particular, it relies on ballots being secured by public officials prior to our arrival at the polls and as we cast our vote. Simply put: voting must be both secret and mandatory.

How do you feel specifically about voting by mail in this presidential election? Is it safe?

Johnson: When properly implemented, there is no reason for concern about voting by mail. Obviously, there can be mistakes or errors. But there is no reason to suspect insurmountable systematic difficulties.

Orr: There have been a lot of claims regarding fraud and voting by mail, but there is no compelling evidence for that. Even a database compiled by the conservative Heritage Foundation identifies fewer than 1,300 proven cases of voter fraud in the US since 1982—and that is among millions upon millions of votes cast in that period. That is true of voting fraud generally. Postal voting is a relatively small percentage of all votes cast. In an ideal world, the number of proven cases of vote fraud would be zero. We do not live in that world. But in the actual world, electoral fraud is a marginal problem in the United States.

Johnson: The panic in some quarters about electoral fraud has been fabricated by a concerted, ongoing campaign undertaken by right-leaning legal activists, think tanks, and Republican party operatives. As former Federal Judge Richard Posner, a conservative, quipped in an opinion in 2014, asking the public to fret about the integrity of US elections because electoral fraud is widespread is akin to asking the public to believe in witches. For those concerned about the putative partisan bias of postal voting, there is little reason to fret. Recent in-depth analysis in states that have enacted postal voting show no partisan bias in those who choose to vote by mail. Similarly, the studies show no significant increase in turnout due to the availability of voting by mail that would advantage one party.

Orr: Given the genuine health concerns and fear of voting in public that many citizens express, it seems that expanding access to voting by mail is the best option in this election. In the long term, the undermining of ballot secrecy through widespread vote-by-mail is a concern, the solution to which would perhaps be to make voting both more convenient through investment in voting infrastructure and, at the same time, making voting mandatory.

You argue that an extension of voting by mail needs a sunset clause after this election cycle. Why?

Johnson: Making policy or reforming institutions in a crisis is never optimal; any new rules have long-term consequences. That’s why we think that any changes in the face of the pandemic should be temporary. This is especially true in the case of universal postal voting because it’s among a set of reforms intended to enhance political participation by making voting more convenient. Yet, studies show that, by and large, measures of “convenience voting” do little to increase participation. They’re largely a subsidy to those already inclined to vote; yet they do little to actually expand the electorate.

Orr: It’s important to remember that postal voting makes ballots insecure because it takes them out of the control of election officials. That’s especially problematic at the time of voting. We are concerned that domineering spouses or parents, clergy, employers and so on may try to influence how relatively vulnerable voters actually vote. Such electoral domination was quite common prior to the implementation of the secret ballot and still occurs relatively frequently in jurisdictions where voting secrecy is imperfect. There’s no reason to believe that those willing and able to engage in electoral domination will not quickly take advantage of the opportunity here in the United States, too. That said, there are currently no academic studies aimed at uncovering electoral domination in US states that have adopted voting by mail; most research to date has focused on fraud.

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