How a secret ballots kept secret?
April 19, 2010 8:14 PM   Subscribe

How (in the US), when voting in government elections, do we know that our secret ballots do, indeed, remain secret?

Sounds paranoid, I know, but I'm genuinely curious. I ask mostly because I live in a small town of about 30k people, and I've heard for years that rules and laws (nothing election related so far) get bent for "friends" of the "right people" all the time.

Also, I had a relative (now deceased) of some prominence in this town (not political at all, just well known and respected) who was approached by a local candidate and asked to please vote for said candidate years ago. My relative always politely declined to say whether or not s/he would vote for anyone and did so to the candidate.

In the end, the candidate in question won by a very small number of votes. From that election on, as long as my relative lived, the candidate, upon seeing my relative in town, would always profusely thank my relative for having voted FOR them in that particular election. My relative was always very curious about this since the candidate clearly didn't do this to anyone else in town (to our knowledge, of course). Turns out that my relative did, indeed, vote for that candidate. I'm certain I am the only one my relative told this to.

Sure, this could be a case of simple assumptions, coincidence, misunderstanding, forgetfulness by my relative, etc. but my relative was always stymied by this reaction because s/he kept her/his voting record so private.

So, I ask: how are secret ballots kept secret in the US (typically, if more specific is not possible)? I live in IL so info on that specific state would be ideal. I'm more concerned about local, county, etc. stuff than statewide or national things. Also, we always had punch card ballots then. Since Bush/Gore 2000 we've had the type where you fill in the circle with black ink. Also, I'm restricting this question to voting at a polling place only.

I know I could go ask this at the county clerk's office, but I won't because I don't want to arouse suspicion.

As always, sorry if this is a repeat! I searched the archives and only found a question on how to tell whether or not someone voted, but not how to tell for whom they voted.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere to Law & Government (26 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
I've voted once. It didn't seem that my ballot had any identifying marks.

They checked off my name when I got a ballot, to signify that I voted. They then gave me a blank ballot. I don't know if they had any way to connect the two, even if they wanted.
posted by chris p at 8:19 PM on April 19, 2010


As chris p says, your name is not connected to the ballot, so it seems like it would be impossible to determine for whom someone voted.
posted by number9dream at 8:26 PM on April 19, 2010


In my district, at least, we use paper ballots, and you don't write your name anywhere on them. Once you fill in the bubble, you tell the old man at the exit station that you're done, he crosses your name off a list without looking at the ballot, and then you stick your ballot in a counting machine that swallows it up. There's no identifying information of any kind on the ballots.

I guess the government could be running epithelial DNA analysis on each ballot, or the old man could be sneaking glances while regaling me with (once again) with the story about how he got mistaken for Mel Brooks once and reporting his findings to the candidates, but this is something I'm willing to take the government's word on.

Short answer: Occam's Razor.
posted by oinopaponton at 8:26 PM on April 19, 2010


How did voting work in that time and place? That seems important. I've voted by lever, punch and marking pen and can't think of a reliable way to track who voted for whom. Barring hidden cameras in the voting booth, I guess.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 8:27 PM on April 19, 2010


Frankly, this is a vexing problem for voting technology people. There are, for instance, mechanical voting machines -- the ones with the curtain and the big arm -- that retain no record whatsoever of an individual vote. When you pull the arm, it ticks a counter, and when you release, everything resets (except the counter). Someone would have to literally be inside the machine watching to know how you voted. But a system like that is difficult to protect from certain kinds of fraud, such as running up the counter before the first voter -- or perhaps even the first judge -- ever enters the room. Same with un-numbered paper ballots, hence the term "ballot box stuffing". Computer systems for voting, of course, can allow for any number of sanity checks, but then with each one you open up the system bit by bit to violations of privacy.

Ultimately the protection in the system is trust in the probity of the officials and as a check, one judge from each major party, so with all of them watching each other you can't have somebody with their finger or eye in the wrong part of the system.

As for your relative's story, nothing in it sounds amiss. The politician was probably simply in the habit of thanking supporters, or people generally, or in this particular case simply mistaken in what the relative told them.
posted by dhartung at 8:31 PM on April 19, 2010


Depends on the ballot system. Paper ballots generally come with a tear off number they write down next to your name so that they know the same form handed to you comes back, and is separated before being placed in the ballot box. They have a fold over security system to protect your ballot from poll workers, but a poorly trained or dishonest one could easily snoop.

However, the ballot itself separated from it's number is available to the public and during the count all ballots are 'canvassed' by a Republican and Democrat, and looked at especially hard when the vote comes down to a very narrow margin. The candidate in question might have seen the ballot during such a contested count.

In a small town, it might be easy to accidentally reveal your ballot in a number of ways. Write in votes, or quirky voting patterns. You might be the only person who voted for candidate A in contest 1 and candidate Q in contest 2 -- mention these two votes that to the right person and they'll be able to infer your vote for contests 3+.
posted by pwnguin at 8:35 PM on April 19, 2010


This is going to vary depending on location, but as poll worker I can tell you how it works in my district.

We receive sealed ballots in packs from a central location. The ballots are then unsealed and inspected to make sure they are valid then initialed by two different election judges that this is the case, each judge may initial a few hundred ballots so actually keeping track of what ballots I initial is near impossible. After they are verified they go in a big stack that the election judge handing out ballots draws from, top to bottom (after receiving verification the voter is indeed on the voter rolls). The voter then takes the ballot and marks it and they feed it into the vote counting machine which stacks the ballots inside, ideally neatly, but more often than not the ballots are a bit jumbled inside the machine. The voter can ascertain that the ballot was counted when the machine accepts the ballot and registers a numerical increasing count number. If the ballot mas been marked incorrectly, or there is some other error the machine makes a noise and alerts the voter and an attendant election Judge who then instructs the voter to place the spoiled ballot in a privacy envelope with all the other spoiled ballots, and the voter is then given a fresh ballot to remark and try again.

I do not know how it is done in your district as voting mechanisms may vary not only by state, but by location within the state. Not only that, but voting mechanisms have changed over the years, so unless you know the mechanism the relative used to vote answering your question becomes pretty hard. I will say that all the election judges I have worked will have been scrupulously fair, even those of the "opposition" (you have to have a balance of registered Dem/Rep/Ind in each voting precinct in MN).

It is possible that your relative being of importance, the politician made an extra effort to reach out to them and when your relative made no effort to dissuade them from believing they DID vote for said politician it was taken on assumption after the first thank you.
posted by edgeways at 8:37 PM on April 19, 2010


When I was a kid, my mother always used to complain that the women who ran the voting stations would look at her punch ballot as though they had determined which squares corresponded to which candidates. It would certainly be possible if they used a type of ballot that could be read by a person, and the person who took the ballot knew how to read it, and they bothered to read it, and they ran off and told the candidate.

It may be more likely that the candidate just assumed your relative voted for him/her -- possibly he/she felt that when your relative declined to state a preference, the candidate felt that your relative gave some non-verbal indication that the candidate would receive the vote.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 8:37 PM on April 19, 2010


Suppose that there really was a major effort to violate the secrecy, on a routine basis. How many tens of thousands of people would have to be involved in such a process? Do you really believe such a thing could be kept secret when so many people were involved in it?
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:11 PM on April 19, 2010


This is probably not exactly what you're looking for, and is somewhat technical, but relevant if you're considering electronic voting systems (or computers in general.)
posted by sanko at 9:12 PM on April 19, 2010


All great responses!

I neglected to add that, back when this happened with my relative, when we were using punch card strip ballots that slid into the butterfly ballot holder, there was a four digit number on the ballot as well as the stub the voter would receive after the punched part was removed and slid into the ballot box (similar to what pwnguin mentions). In my district, they would also write that same number next to your name in the books of valid voters they had. I know from voting with groups of people that the numbers ran sequentially, so it seemed to me that it would be rather easy, given access to both the punched ballots (with the four digit number on them) and the voter books (with the same numbers next to each persons name and signature), to trace back how each individual voter voted.

Seems like it would only take one person per polling place or one person with access to all ballots and all books from all polling places and sufficient time to figure the whole thing out.

As for nowadays with the "fill in the dot, and send it into the validating machine (while the old man watches you)" there are one or two bar codes on each ballot that raise my level of suspicion somewhat.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 9:23 PM on April 19, 2010


Chocolate Pickle: "Suppose that there really was a major effort to violate the secrecy, on a routine basis. How many tens of thousands of people would have to be involved in such a process? Do you really believe such a thing could be kept secret when so many people were involved in it?"

I completely understand what you're saying, but, if you were to see the numbers of people who vote at each polling place or even in total, I think you'd agree that it's quite doable. Likely? That's another story, I agree. However, given enough time to look things over (a month, two, three even?) it seems like it could very well be done with a small number of people.

I guess I'm just saying that those ballots and other documentation are surely saved for some time, and it seems possible that in a small county with low voter turnout that it could very well be done every election; especially given the fact that we have the same few families running for both the same and different positions year after year.

Again, I know I sound paranoid, but this little county appears to have too many coincidences going on for there not to be something shady occurring.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 9:32 PM on April 19, 2010


InsertNiftyNameHere: "In my district, they would also write that same number next to your name in the books of valid voters they had. I know from voting with groups of people that the numbers ran sequentially, so it seemed to me that it would be rather easy, given access to both the punched ballots (with the four digit number on them) and the voter books (with the same numbers next to each persons name and signature), to trace back how each individual voter voted."

They're supposed to remove the number from the voted ballot, so that you can't trace the recorded number back to a specific set of votes. I'm not familiar enough with paper ballots to rule out the possibility that these numbers weren't removed. Ideally, the ballots wouldn't be numbered sequentially, and they'd be returned out of order.

The reason we keep the number associated with a name is to prevent people from vote chaining. You sneak an unmarked ballot out and vote it, and then offer a deal to pay someone to trade your voted ballot for a new blank one. Recording the number ensures the ballot you turn in matches the one you were given, and tearing it off is supposed to divorce that round trip guarantee from it's vote. It's also why people like edgeways are super retentive about ballot integrity.

There's other possibilities; if you assume registered party members vote for their party, people like your uncle may be one of a few independents who didn't commit to a vote in his polling place. Or perhaps the politician guessed on the assumption that he wouldn't be corrected if he guessed wrong, or maybe he would and finally know. Or perhaps your uncle was paid to vote a specific way and doesn't want his family to find out. What better cover to not discuss how you were paid to vote than to insist you never discuss voting with anyone ever?

If it's any consolation, I was pretty surprised to find in the last election that my polling place had no privacy curtains and situated near windows.
posted by pwnguin at 10:26 PM on April 19, 2010


Elections are administered at the state or county level and thus the answer is going to vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
posted by Jacqueline at 10:31 PM on April 19, 2010


sanko: "This is probably not exactly what you're looking for, and is somewhat technical, but relevant if you're considering electronic voting systems (or computers in general.)"
OMG!! That is so mind blowing! I had seen many articles, videos, etc. on the perils of e-voting systems, but that just puts it smack dab into perspective.

That is some damn scary stuff right there! When I next get some time, I'm going to have to play around with those examples on that page. I think I learned more from that simple example than I did from all my days in programming classes! Many, many thanks!!!

After seeing that, I'm pretty sure I now AM paranoid, however about much more than just the stuff I asked about.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 10:46 PM on April 19, 2010


Oh, that's only the start. It's just security of computers in general. On the other hand, this guy has done a pretty good job tearing apart voting machines with his graduate researcher crew.
posted by pwnguin at 11:03 PM on April 19, 2010


pwnguin: "Or perhaps your uncle was paid to vote a specific way and doesn't want his family to find out. What better cover to not discuss how you were paid to vote than to insist you never discuss voting with anyone ever? "
Now that would be a real hoot! Here I am all high and mighty worried about integrity in my neck of the woods, and my own flesh-and-blood relative might have been on the take the whole time. The possibility raises more questions than answers. I guess some things are better left unknown. Thanks!!
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 11:13 PM on April 19, 2010


There's no need for fancy skullduggery. In my Mom's small town, they just put all the "questionable" voters on one machine. If only 12 people use one machine, it's pretty easy to figure out who voted what. All the known voters get put on the other two machines.
posted by arabelladragon at 5:00 AM on April 20, 2010


The politician may have been in the habit of thanking everyone after he won the election. Genuine supporters feel proud, and people who voted for the other guy feel too embarrassed to say anything. The non-supporters might remember the thank-you and vote for him the next time around.
posted by amicamentis at 5:19 AM on April 20, 2010


Knowing politicians, I would guess that the OP's story was less an example of the candidate's secret knowledge of individual voting and more an example of anonymous schmoozing. Politicians know how to either make someone feel real good or real bad and the statement he made to the relative could cut both ways depending on how they voted.

On preview, what amicamentis said ^^
posted by JJ86 at 6:23 AM on April 20, 2010


especially given the fact that we have the same few families running for both the same and different positions year after year.

This could just be self-reinforcing with no skullduggery involved.

People see the "same few families running ... year after year" and many potential candidates figure "Eh, why bother. It's just going to be a McGillicuddy again."

So, McGillicuddy runs against a lone crank who doesn't subscribe to the common-knowledge "why bother" logic. McGillicuddy gets in because ... who's going to vote for that crank? Everyone knows those McGillicuddys play dirty pool; look here's a McGillicuddy running for office again! But, what's our choice? Vote for that flat-Earther hooplehead who's never held office?
posted by chazlarson at 7:30 AM on April 20, 2010


Another poll worker (poll inspector, actually) here. In Los Angeles county, there really is no way to know how someone voted. Even the workers and inspectors can't tell. The only thing that is public is that you voted at all in that particular election, because you signed the official registrar book when you came in to the polling place or because you sent back your mail-in ballot, if you had requested one. And if you wrote-in a candidate's name who was not on the ballot, we do get to see that person's name, although not your name, because we need to see if that person is an "approved" write-in candidate. (I believe during the 2008 elections someone in my polling place wrote-in Donald Duck.) But the ballots are fed into the reader machine with the flap covering the inked-in dots until the last second. Even if we had memorized the position of a certain dot for a certain candidate or ballot initiative, there is like a half second to see the person's ballot before it drops through the reader into the locked ballot box. The box is never left alone, and we even send back the cut-through metal lock pieces at the end of the night (in a special envelope) along with the other ballot supplies.

The street addresses of people who voted in an election are also publicly posted at the entrance to the polling place all day, and the sheets there are updated once an hour. (This is so that campaign workers can check them and know where to send people door-to-door for their campaign, to target areas where more people haven't gotten out to vote yet.)

LA even tries hard to have a mix of voter registrations amongst its polling workers at any given polling place, to prevent any one party from running everything. (I have twice been the only Republican around...) And we all take a verbal oath to do our duty honestly and fairly, both during training days and on election day, and a signed oath on election day too, in the front of the registrar book, for what that's worth. You don't say or sign the oath, you won't get paid for your work. And the poll inspector must go with at least one other poll worker to drop off the final ballots at the end of the night, which is usually held at a public non-partisan place like a school or firehouse.

Your district's rules may (and probably do) vary. But seriously, your votes are safe, as far as I can see. It would take some truly clever, evil people to rig the votes -- which is certainly possible with electronic voting, alas, but fortunately that's not the usual way most parts of the country vote.
posted by Asparagirl at 1:32 PM on April 20, 2010


Another voter-fraud-prevention measure in Los Angeles is that our ballot readers (which the ballots pass through before dropping into the ballot box below it) print a "zero report" at the beginning of the day when they are first turned on, validating that they have "seen" zero votes pass through it all day. That zero report receipt is signed by the poll inspector and returned in yet another special envelope at the end of the day. And this card reader doesn't actually count the votes anyway; it -- and later by hand, we workers -- just counts the total number of ballots that have passed through it, a number which does not include the mail-in ballots that got surrendered by hand at the polling place (rather than being mailed) or the provisional ballots.

In other words, voter fraud is very unlikely. It's also a hugely serious charge to be making against your district, especially when voter apathy and very low voter turnout is so much more a likely reason for your odd results.
posted by Asparagirl at 1:43 PM on April 20, 2010


After the Florida2000 fiasco, Cook County IL did paper optical scan ballots. I liked them. Someone apparently didn't. Now we had Sequoia touch screen machines. You walk in, sign the book, then they hand your signature card to another person who types in some numbers and hands you a hotel-keycard looking thing. You then stick that in the machine and commence to voting. When you are done, it prints three feet of receipt tape showing your answers, and a 2D barcode. I do not feel like this is private, but I guess it is.
posted by gjc at 5:41 PM on April 20, 2010


Asparagirl: "In other words, voter fraud is very unlikely. It's also a hugely serious charge to be making against your district, "

I alleged no voter fraud whatsoever in my district or any other. I'm curious, though, by simply questioning how things work, I am "making a hugely serious charge against my district?" If that attitude is the prevailing one in the country, then we are all in for some serious trouble.

To turn the argument back on these workers and the system, "If they've done nothing wrong, they have nothing to fear from my inquiries." Somehow I get the feeling from your attitude, however, that they can punish me for questioning them, but I can't even expect them to explain to me how they do their jobs even if no specific details are mentioned. What a country! That sounds about as transparent as a brick wall.

I'll paraphrase Stalin: "The people who vote decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything."

Does that sound like a better system to you? I'm fearful it just might based on your post.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 1:11 AM on April 24, 2010


gjc: "After the Florida2000 fiasco, Cook County IL did paper optical scan ballots. I liked them. Someone apparently didn't. Now we had Sequoia touch screen machines. ... When you are done, it prints three feet of receipt tape showing your answers, and a 2D barcode. I do not feel like this is private, but I guess it is."

When it comes to voting in Cook County, as I understand it, there is no such thing as privacy. I've no idea if that's true or not, but it seems to be the common perception whether it's deserved or not. Cook County's voting motto seems to be: "Vote early and vote often!"
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 1:16 AM on April 24, 2010


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