Would Hitler have wanted people to post who they voted for? Would Benito Mussolini have tweeted photos with voters? Would Francisco Franco have Instagrammed a ballot with a check next to his name? These are the questions I was asking myself after listening to a recent NPR story on the controversy brewing around “ballot selfies.”
— Christine Morrow (@TomorrowChris) November 4, 2014
The legality of posting pictures of your completed ballot is a hot topic in the States right now, but it’s been discussed in countries all around the world. The battle is now raging in New Hampshire, with both sides firing shots. Let’s take a look at what they’re saying.
What’s the Big Deal?
So why is this a problem? Why shouldn’t people post pictures of their ballot? If they’re going to be that vocal about who they voted for, won’t it already be obvious which candidates they’re supporting?
In short, a number of people believe that posting images of completed ballots violates the principle of the secret ballot, an important pillar upon which modern democracy is built. Of course, it’s still quite illegal to post pictures of someone else’s ballot; that violates their rights to an anonymous vote. But what about the “ballot selfie”? New Hampshire’s Secretary of State Bill Gardner has been very vocal about his opposition to the practice:
If somebody wants to go out and say that they voted for this person or that person they can do it. They can do it, but that ballot is sacred . . . I have a copy of the last ballot that was used when Saddam Hussein was elected, and that ballot identified who the person was. Hitler did the same thing in Austria.
Gardner stated that this violation of the “sanctity” of the anonymous ballot could lead to voter coercion, and he backed legislation last year that made New Hampshire the first state to specifically ban ballot selfies — punishable by a $1,000 fine. At the time of this writing, there are four voters who are under investigation for sharing voting booth photos under this law.
This legislation is being challenged in court by three plaintiffs, including Brandon Ross. He told NPR that “It’s a core part of our democratic process is being able to communicate who you vote for. This is 2015 now, people interact with social media constantly.”
The case will likely be heard next month, and we’ll be very interested to see how it goes.
Are Ballot Selfies Really That Dangerous?
Bill Gardner brought up Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler in his discussion of ballot selfies — and while the allusion is ridiculous, there’s certainly precedent for voter coercion in recent years. In Mexico, the 2012 election was widely considered to be rigged, and many voters received gift cards redeemable at grocery stores from the incumbent party (who went on to win the election).
It’s not limited to politically dangerous countries, though, and it’s not a relic of the past: the 2012 presidential election in the United States saw widespread spam campaigns that sought to influence people to vote for specific Republican candidates by sowing misinformation among voters. The Republican party has also been accused of harassing minority voters or disrupting polling places to the point where people get frustrated and leave without voting.
But voter coercion happens on both sides of the aisle: in 2012, one man sent letters to 200 Republican donors in Florida telling them that they were ineligible to vote. He was caught, and sentenced to 15 months in prison and over $35,000 in fines (he got off pretty light considering that the maximum sentence was six years in prison and $350,000 in fines).
None of this pertains to ballot selfies, but it does go to show that voter coercion is still an issue today. It may not look the same as it did in the 1800s, when voter coercion ran rampant, but it’s definitely out there.
However, whether ballot selfies are cause for concern when it comes to this coercion is less certain. One of the most common arguments for allowing them is that people have always been allowed to tell others who they voted for, and for better or worse, that sharing photos on social media sites is just a modern way of sharing that information. As Ross pointed out in the quote above, that’s how we communicate today — in the past, we always had the freedom to tell our friends who we voted for. We should have the same right today.
In a 2013 conference paper, Josh Benaloh pointed out that the technologies that abound today in mobile phones do, in fact, make it easier to bypass the anti-coercion measures that are in place, and they allow remote voter coercion, which is more difficult to defend against and detect:
While steps can and should be taken to prevent post-election coercion, we should also be realistic and admit to ourselves that we have no effective technical means to prevent simple, economically-scalable, remotely-enforced, pre-election coercion.
Of course, the point of this paper isn’t that these technologies are, in fact, being used to coerce voters — just that some capabilities that we now have (especially mobile video capture) could be used to do this.
What Does the Rest of the World Say?
New Hampshire certainly isn’t the first place to tackle this issue. As I mentioned previously, a number of other countries have discussed it, but there have been differing results. The Dutch government has no problem with voting-booth selfies. The French government hasn’t made it illegal, but advises against it, as it could violate the secrecy of the voting booth and cast doubt on whether someone has been influenced and is posting proof that they voted a certain way.
The UK, however, does not allow ballot selfies, also suggesting that it could reveal political allegiances. Ontario, Canada, similarly bans the practice. South Africa said “no” to ballot selfies, too, though snapping a photo of yourself with an inked thumb to show that you voted is encouraged. The same is true in many other countries, where inked fingers are common in selfies around voting time.
It’s clear that there isn’t a trend at work: some countries allow ballot selfies, some have made them illegal, and many are having conversations around them to determine the legality and whether or not they may contribute to voter coercion.
Emphasizing the Wrong Piece of the Puzzle
Gilles Bissonnette, a lawyer with the New Hampshire ACLU, thinks that banning voting-booth selfies isn’t the way to ensure that our elections are fair:
The more tailored approach here would be to aggressively investigate and prosecute vote buying, and to aggressively investigate and prosecute vote bribery. But I think the question here is whether this law appropriately addresses those interests.
It’s a safe bet to say that his opinion will have a lot of support. There’s definitely historical precedent for new technologies being mixed up in old problems. Some people argue that texting while driving isn’t something we should be focusing on: it’s bad driving in general that’s the problem, and texting just provides a new way to do it. Others have said the same thing about parenting: that having more tech around doesn’t make people bad parents, but that people who would have engaged in poor parenting practices anyway simply have another way to do it now.
Blaming ballot selfies for opening up voters to coercion will probably join this list before long. Yes, the ubiquity of small recording devices may make it slightly easier to coerce voters into supporting a specific candidate. But cell phones aren’t the problem — voter coercion is the problem. And that’s what needs to be addressed, with better investigations and harsher punishments.
This fight is far from over, with both sides being very committed to their respective ideologies. But because of the unenforceable nature of the laws currently on the books, politicians looking to pander to younger voters, and historical precedent, selfies are almost certain to live on in voting booths, at least in the United States. And, when it comes down to it, there are a lot more important problems our countries are dealing with — shouldn’t we spend our time focusing on those issues instead?
What do you think about the ballot selfies debate? Is the voting booth a sacred place, that shouldn’t be photographed? Or is posting a photo of a ballot the same as telling someone else how you voted? Share your thoughts below!
Image credits: Vote here Via Shutterstock, Vox Efx via flickr, The democrat and republican symbols via Shutterstock, The U.S. Army via flickr, Hand of a person casting a ballot via Shutterstock.