According to wikipedia, "The secret ballot is a voting method in which a voter's choices in an election or a referendum are anonymous, forestalling attempts to influence the voter by intimidation and potential vote buying." The idea is that to be counted, a vote must be made in a way that no one except the voter can see whom the voter has chosen. Thus, persons who could try to pressure the voter to choose one specific candidate have no way to be sure that their pressions have been effective, nor has the voter any way to guarantee to people other than himself that he has voted for a specific candidate.

Wikipedia mentions that in the US, the importance of secret ballot was realized progressively near the end of 19th century and that ways of voting compatible with this principle were adopted everywhere (with North Carolina the last state to adopt it, in 1950, long after Georgia, the second last, in 1922).

However, nowadays, most states allow mail votes, which is not a secret ballot and offers no guarantees that the voter is not subject to intimidation or threat. My question is

When mail votes where introduced in the US, and when they became a significant part of the total votes, were there people arguing against this in the name of secret ballots? And if so, what were the counter-arguments offered by the partisans of vote by mail? Where can I find summaries of those debates?

  • How does vote by mail works to make that claim? In Spain I: a) go to to PO, Embassy or Consulate and request mail vote with my ID b) receive ballots and a standard envelope by mail c) put the ballot in the envelope and go back to PO, Emb. or Con. to deposit it, where it is sealed in a bigger envelope that has my data in it. On election day I can go and vote (all votes are inside envolope); after stations are closed mail votes are opened, the voter checked against the roll list (mail votes of people who appeared to vote in person are discarded) and the standard envelopes added to the poll box. – SJuan76 Nov 19 '16 at 10:51
  • What makes USA system so different to raise fears of intimidation and threat? – SJuan76 Nov 19 '16 at 10:52
  • In the US, there are about 30 states where you can vote in absentia or by mail without justification. Precise rules, as usual here, vary by state, but essentially it is a very easy process. You receive directly or ask for a form to vote by mail, fill it by indicating you name and address and whom you are voting for, and send it back by mail. Except for the ID thing, that doesn't look very different from the system you describe. So to answer your question, I believe that any system that doesn't strictly enforce the "secret vote" is prone to pressure, intimidation, of threats... – Joël Nov 19 '16 at 14:34
  • That can go from pressure for your family to vote for one candidate (like this: "-Hey son, did you vote for candidate X already? -- Not yet Mom, do not worry, I'll do it... promised -- You'll forget, let me do it for you with a mail vote. Just sign here and here, don't worry, I'll go to the PO for you") to threat ("If you do not vote for candidate X and prove it me, you have no business working for me at my Sandwich cart"), and also all kinds of "vote buying"... – Joël Nov 19 '16 at 14:41
  • (from "if you vote for this guy -- and prove it by letting me look at your mail ballot and send it for you") I will give you money (or love, or sexual favors, or this vacation in Barbados you're dreaming of, or a job). – Joël Nov 19 '16 at 14:41

Vote by mail does not preclude secret ballots

I am a resident of Oregon, which was the first state to move to an entirely vote-by-mail system following the passage of Ballot Measure 60 in 1998.

A good vote-by-mail process can preserve a secret ballot. In practice, Oregon's process does a reasonable job of this. Unfortunately, the codified process does not enforce this, and a few modifications would make the preservation of secrecy much stronger.

For reference, here is Oregon's official Vote by Mail Procedures Manual.

Here's the short version:

  • Ballots are submitted in two envelopes:

    • The outer envelope is the Return Identification Envelope. This includes the name and address of the voter, and a signature promising that the sender is who they say they are.
    • The inner envelope is the Privacy Envelope. This is unmarked.
  • Ballots may be submitted directly to secure voting dropsites, of which there are many, circumventing the postal service.

  • Ballots are batch processed in three phases:

    1. The opening board: (a) checks the signature on the return envelope against the signature on file for that voter, (b) removes the return envelope, and (c) removes the secrecy envelope.
    2. The inspection board sorts ballots into those that can be machine counted and those that can't. They fix non-machine-countable ballots where intent is clear.
    3. The ballots are counted.

Every step of the process may be observed/overseen by any member of the public that agrees to follow some obvious rules.

Each of the three steps at the opening board are done in batches of ~200 ballots at a time (source), which provides a reasonable amount of secrecy. That is, 200 return envelopes are removed, then the secrecy envelopes are removed from those 200 ballots. This means that nobody sees a ballot with its return envelope at the same time, and batches of 200 preserve reasonable anonymity.

Unfortunately, the batch size is not codified in the official process. More fundamentally, secrecy would be much stronger if 1(b) and 1(c) occurred in batches at different stations, so that no one person sees both the ballot and its return envelope.

Hopefully this makes it clear that ballot secrecy and vote-by-mail are not fundamentally opposed, as the question implies. Rather, ballot secrecy can be preserved by a good vote-by-mail process.

To more directly answer your question, however, yes, people make arguments against vote-by-mail on the basis of privacy (and also voter fraud). Unfortunately, I can't track down a copy of the official "Against" arguments for Oregon's ballot Measure 60, but political activist Bill Sizemore was and is one of the vocal opponents. You can read his thoughts on vote by mail here.

In general, however, the vote-by-mail system is quite popular in Oregon across the political spectrum, and Oregon has consistently high voter turnout relative to the national average, which is usually attributed to the vote by mail. In practice, I believe our process preserves a reasonable amount of secrecy. With the minor changes I suggest above, I think it would preserve it to at least the degree of most in-person voting systems.

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    Thanks a lot walkie, for this very precise, clear, and informative answer. However, it only addresses a small part of my concerns about secret ballot and vote by mail. Specifically, it addresses the risk than vote officials can discover your vote, which is important, but not the risk that voters might be pressured at the time they send their vote by mail. This is after all the main aim of secret ballot: people, by their social, economic or familial situation are more easily pressurable than others... – Joël Apr 27 '17 at 14:37
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    The situation that we should fear is the husband pressuring his wife (say in some religious subgroup of America where patriarchal culture remains strong), of the parents pressuring their still-at-home children over 18, of the children pressuring their elderly parents, of the boss pressuring his/her employees, etc. The case for secret ballot is based on the notion that if you allow (just "allow", not "compel") voter to show their vote to someone else, the sincerity of their vote is compromised, because this someone else may threat them if they don't vote as he likes and show it to him. – Joël Apr 27 '17 at 14:42
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    Thanks for the clarification, Joël. I understand the concern better now (and I see now that you already clarified them in the original comments). Oregon does also require access to privacy booths for people to vote and submit their ballot in person, but obviously this does not solve the problem that it is possible to show your vote to someone else. I agree now that this is a real concern. Ultimately I think this must be balanced against the benefits, such as increased voter participation. – walkie Apr 28 '17 at 23:48
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    @walkie Upvoted for the comment about balance. Elections are fundamentally an engineered system. (Not a well-engineered one, any more than a bridge designed by a dart-throwing monkey is a good bridge. But still!) There are always conflicting priorities that have to be balanced. There are numerous "right" ways to hold elections, depending entirely on context. – Stephen Collings Dec 22 '17 at 14:06

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