How anonymous is my vote?
November 5, 2012 6:00 AM   Subscribe

I'll make this super-simple: how anonymous is your vote in the United States? I'm currently working for a progressive-oriented group that does lot of work with Democratic politicians/figures - but I'm considering voting third-party in this year's presidential election.

I know some information on your vote can be accessed (e.g. MoveOn's voter report card, that tells you how often you've voted) - but if I voted for Jill Stein instead of Barack Obama, would anyone ever know? What about non-presidential votes?

If they did know, it might cause serious difficulties with work I care deeply about - it might also be limiting if I ever wanted to run for a local office. How secure is that information? I feel ignorant asking this, but really don't know how securely it's kept - thank you.
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Things that are registered with the state, such as party affiliation and when and where you voted for a particular election are public record. However, how you vote on your ballot is anonymous unless you waive the anonymity by telling how you vote or by voting absentee, which waives anonymity through its process.
posted by Tanizaki at 6:07 AM on November 5, 2012 [4 favorites]

When you talk about "secure", are you asking how difficult it would be for someone to hack in and obtain this information illegally?
posted by andoatnp at 6:11 AM on November 5, 2012

My polling center uses electronic voting machines. You go to a table and give your name/ID. They check your name off, and give you a little laminated card that acts as a placeholder - meaning you've "signed in" but have not yet voted. The little card bears no personal information, and the same card is re-used for many people. You stand in line for the machines. When one becomes available, you hand your card to the poll worker. They re-set the machine, and you vote. There is no way of keeping track who you voted for, at least in this method.

However, my voting record shows my history in voting for various Democratic & Republican primaries (in my state, you do not register for any party, and can vote in any party primary). No record of who I actually voted for - but just the occasions that I cast my ballot. So if you voted in the Republican primary this year, it wouldn't show that you voted for Mittens or whomever, or a write-in - but the record would show you voted in the Republican presidential primary of 2012.

I cast an absentee ballot in 2008 - I think my name or some identifying number was on the ballot, though I was so excited to vote that I don't really remember the details of the form.
posted by raztaj at 6:12 AM on November 5, 2012

The Secret Ballot system was invented in Australia and if functioning correctly there should be pretty much impossible for anyone (even a vote counter) to determine who any voter cast their vote for.

I don't know about the physical voting mechanisms in the USA but in Australia you tick an otherwise identical print out with no identifying marks on it and stick in a box with hundreds of others.

Wikipedia suggests some ballots are in principal not as secret as others. see the UK system where the Vote could later be found if one had access to the Votes and the log of Id numbers.
posted by mary8nne at 6:13 AM on November 5, 2012

To build on Tanizaki's answer: absentee voting is still treated anonymously, but when you mail in a ballot, there is identifying information on the envelope which could theoretically link you to the ballot if the local election board did not handle it properly.

It's unclear from your question if you've ever voted before, but the way the process works at a polling place is that they first verify that you're registered, then they hand you a paper ballot/tell you to get in line for the mechanical or electronic voting booth. Once you're past the registration checkpoint there is generally no way to know which vote was yours.

My precinct does the numbering of ballots like mentioned in the wikipedia article but they do not write the numbers down in the registration book - I've watched. They do it to keep a count to make sure the numbers match up. So even if I'm ballot #123, they don't know it's me.
posted by cabingirl at 6:18 AM on November 5, 2012


For the most part, it's very anonymous and, while there's been a lot of to-do in the media about potentials for insecurity, it's mostly based on vote manipulation...not identifying who voted for whom.

Vote your conscience.
posted by inturnaround at 6:23 AM on November 5, 2012

The information about how you, in particular, vote isn't just kept securely: it isn't kept AT ALL. Of course, human beings are involved and it is possible that someone could peek through the curtains of the voting booth or look at your ballot while you're putting it in the box/scanner. But there is no systematic, official storage of who voted for what/who.
posted by mskyle at 6:50 AM on November 5, 2012

I am a poll worker in Wisconsin, which no longer has party registration or straight-ticket voting (only fifteen states do; I might be able to wing a general question about it if you're in one). If none of your colleagues were poll workers and they wouldn't be observing/helping with a hand-recount of the election in question, there would be absolutely no way for them to known how you voted, only that you did (that's the information report card uses, except more accurate because it's tied to your name rather than just your current address).

If they are poll workers and I emphasize that what I am describing is a major breech of trust and certainly a firing offense, if not a felony, there are two major ways they could know how you voted: a mishandled absentee ballot (which comes in an envelope with your name and address and must be assigned a random number to keep the tally system coherent), or if you write some kind of identifying information on the ballot itself. The same basic scenarios go for recounters too, though here it hinges on you submitting an absentee ballot and multiple poll workers allowing it through with your information on it, which would almost certainly have to be deliberate.

To clarify, by identifying information I mean your name or something, not just a pattern of votes you're worried is unique to you -- barring writing your own name in for every race, probably there's another ballot in the stack just like yours. If Jill Stein is actually on your ballot, certainly no one's going to look twice at it because we're scanning for write-ins, which the machine can't read and therefore have to be manually recorded. The little numbered slips they give you after you check in are completely anonymous. The number is written in the book, but it's not on the ballot anywhere (the ballot you get is just the top sheet in a huge stack) and you're not even under any obligation to submit the ballot promptly enough that it goes into the machine in order (that is, you could have had slip #1 and your neighbor Roger #2, but Roger makes up his mind faster than you so he's tallied as voter #1 in the machine).

The vast bulk of the ballots really, truly are anonymous. The very process destroys any identifying information as it goes, and short of spying on you personally as you make your selections, the two cases I've mentioned are the only weak points where an unscrupulous person could figure out how you personally voted.
posted by teremala at 7:06 AM on November 5, 2012 [4 favorites]

The only hiccup could happen at registration time or if you vote in a party primary election. In some states you can register as an independent, but if you vote in a party primary you become attached to that party unless you sign a card re-registering as an independent. I don't know about other states, but in MA that practice was discontinued, so if you vote in a party primary you maintain your independent registration.
posted by Gungho at 8:22 AM on November 5, 2012

Generally speaking, how you voted is, for all intents, anonymous. That you showed-up and voted, however, is public knowledge.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:08 AM on November 5, 2012

It depends which state you're in. In MI, once the top tab is removed from the ballot, in most cases it's impossible to determine which individual ballot is yours, and thus, which way you voted. Absentee ballots are treated exactly the same as in-person ballots on the day of the election once the record-keeping ("George was sent ballot number Q, George returned ballot number Q", "OK, remove the top tab with the ballot number") is done

In the party primary elections, separate ballots are used for the two major parties (largely because of the nature of that election, which is two separate elections being held at the same time for the sake of the clerks -- it's much easier and less expensive to run them together than to run them on different days), so it's a matter of record which ballot you requested for that election. But there's no way to track how you voted on the party ballot.

(I say 'most cases', because if your vote is challenged (and in eight years I've not seen a challenged vote in the precinct), the ballot number is written on the ballot in ink and then covered with paper tape so it can be removed from the count if necessary.)
posted by jlkr at 12:32 PM on November 5, 2012

If you're a progressive, then you know that (especially) this year, a third-party vote (or not voting) is a vote for Romney/Ryan. Can you live with that? (I know some Nader voters who can't.)
posted by 2soxy4mypuppet at 6:20 PM on November 5, 2012

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