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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.”

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.

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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 5 Great Websites To Sell & Buy Unwanted Gift Cards 5 Great Websites To Sell & Buy Unwanted Gift Cards Have you ever been given a gift card that you can’t use? How about a voucher for a website you’d never dream of buying from? It might be tempting to pass the card on to... Read More 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 How To Report Email Fraud & Spam To Authorities How To Report Email Fraud & Spam To Authorities Read More that sought to influence people to vote for specific Republican candidates by sowing misinformation among voters 4 Fact Checking Sites You Should Read Before Voting 4 Fact Checking Sites You Should Read Before Voting Quickly check whether a political statement is fact, fiction or something in between. Fact checking sites won't give you all the answers or tell you what to think, but they they can help you sort... Read More . 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).

elephant-donkey-face-off

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 5 Ways Social Media Makes The World A Better Place 5 Ways Social Media Makes The World A Better Place Social Media is often spoken of as a frivolity. It only takes a little digging to realize that social media can actually make the world a better place, lead social revolutions, and more. Read More , 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 How To Stream Live Video From Your Smartphone How To Stream Live Video From Your Smartphone Whenever I mention to people that I am obsessed with streaming video apps, I almost always get the same response - why would you want to stream real-time video from your phone? What about your... Read More 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.

election-ink

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.

voting-ballot-box

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.

  1. storm
    March 29, 2015 at 6:27 pm

    More than voter coercition, a big problem in Italy is people buying votes. Years ago candidates used to give the poor a shoe before election, and the second shoe only after, if they were elected. Lack of proof of the vote is the only thing that keeps people free even if they (pretend to) sell their vote. That's why we will never have a receipt if we ever have electronic vote, and why over here it's absolutely forbidden to take ballot pics.

    • Dann Albright
      March 29, 2015 at 7:34 pm

      I definitely understand that vote buying would be helped a lot by legal ballot selfies, but do you think that it would be that much worse? Or would politicians just find other ways to buy votes? If they're creative enough to come up with the shoe idea, I have to imagine they're pretty good at finding ways to convince people.

  2. Jon Heil
    March 24, 2015 at 1:22 pm

    Laugh.. either vote for an ass clown or dumbo, they both are a corrupt government so nobody wins, so why take the time out to vote for them since too many federal and state workers abuse the system and should take selfies of these idiots and bounce them out from violating people.

  3. Christopher
    March 24, 2015 at 5:57 am

    I think the 1st Amendment gives me the right to take a picture of my ballot if I so choose so any law prohibiting that action is unconstitutional.

    Supreme Court: "To achieve First Amendment protection, a plaintiff must show that he possessed: (1) a message to be communicated; and (2) an audience to receive that message, regardless of the medium in which the message is to be expressed."

    • Dann Albright
      March 29, 2015 at 7:33 pm

      That seems like pretty solid logic to me. While I think ballot selfies (along with heavy political social media posting in general) are less than tactful, it seems like people do have a right to post them. Though I don't understand exactly what the prioritization process is when two different laws clash.

  4. James Howde
    March 24, 2015 at 2:20 am

    I can see the argument around buying votes - but if I'm getting proof of delivering my vote I don't need to post a picture online - just show it to the person paying me. There's not a lot you can do there, it would be nonsense to put up CCTV to protect the right to a secret ballot. You could, I suppose, strip search people before letting them into the booth but that isn't going to encourage voter turnout.

    The UK quote is also odd since at every election I've voted at the person handing out the voting slip has made a note of the number on the one handed to me so the government could find out my political allegiance if they really wanted to.

    • Dann Albright
      March 29, 2015 at 7:31 pm

      I'm not sure what you mean by showing your vote to the person paying you; when I've voted, I haven't left the polling place with anything that proves who I voted for. The selfies provide a way to show someone that you voted the way you did without them having to just take your word for it.

      Interesting observation about the UK; I've never voted here, as I'm not a citizen. I'm not really sure exactly who people are afraid of knowing their allegiances, but it seems like the government is well-placed to know just about everyone's political views.

  5. dragonmouth
    March 23, 2015 at 8:39 pm

    I think that it is a tempest in a teapot. IMO, ballot selfies are self-centered and self-indulgent, but then I think that any kind of selfies is self-centered and self-indulgent.

    It could be argued that the process of campaigning by candidates is coercive since each candidate is trying very hard to influence/coerce the voters to vote for him/her. It can also be argued that candidates' campaign promises are nothing more than thinly disguised bribery. "Vote for me and I'll do XYZ for you."

    "The UK, however, does not allow ballot selfies, also suggesting that it could reveal political allegiances."
    That sounds like faulty reasoning to me. Doesn't registering as a member of a particular party reveal one's political allegiances?!

    • Howard Pearce
      March 23, 2015 at 9:10 pm

      Of course one of the reasons people don't register according to their true beliefs is that the government discriminates against minority parties in terms of the process and signatures they must collect . Those who get above a certain percentage are excluded from this process of course .... I am talking about the U.S.

      The state and most of the media in the U.S. is totally dedicated to a 2 party system.

    • Eva
      March 23, 2015 at 10:24 pm

      I don't think they do that in the UK - this practise of registering one's party affiliation while registering to vote seems to be a unique US custom. I don't really understand the purpose behind it either.

    • Tinkicker
      March 24, 2015 at 1:09 pm

      Actually, any person who uses common sense in reviewing the many party platform components will very rarely vote straight ticket, because there will always be some Democratic Party ideas that are right for the voter, even when there will always be some Republican Party ideas that are right.
      It's never a simple cut and dried conservative/liberal choice. Unless one is foolish enough to vote through the emotional lens of, "dad, grandad and great grandad always voted X, so that's good enough for me". Or maybe, "the X Party is right and will always be right just because it's the X Party". Every time someone tells me they just vote straight ticket because it's easier I wish again that intellectual laziness was a punishable crime.
      C'mon! People actually make these life-changing governmental choices based on what their ancestors thought, the crowd thinks, or because it's "just the thing to do". Geez!
      The US government would be in much better condition if people used intelligence in voting instead of worrying about how they could fit into the status quo...which gives you my opinion on selfies lol.

    • dragonmouth
      March 24, 2015 at 1:34 pm

      @Tinkicker:
      You'd be surprised how many people vote straight party ticket. or vote "My party right or wrong."

      "The US government would be in much better condition if people used intelligence in voting"
      Therein lies the problem, people do not use their intelligence. "IF" is a very small word with very big implications.

      Don't get me started on the voting habits of the American sheeple. I have volunteered a couple of times to work in a polling place. It is unbelievable how and why people vote. There are quite a few people who come in and ask who they should vote for. They don't have the foggiest idea who is running for what office or what the candidates stand for.

    • Dann Albright
      March 29, 2015 at 7:27 pm

      dragonmouth, I agree with your question to the UK; there are plenty of things that show our political allegiances all the time, and selfies are clearly self-motivated and not coerced; if people want to show their allegiances, why shouldn't they be able to?

    • Dann Albright
      March 29, 2015 at 7:29 pm

      Tinkicker, I'm going to agree with dragonmouth here; I think there's a huge number of people who vote all Democrat or all Republican, no matter what. You brought up common sense, but it's pretty amazing just how uncommon that is! Again, though, if people were going to just vote for a specific party not matter who the candidates are or the specific issues at stake, it seems likely that they'd be happy to share their political allegiances, and that most people would probably know them already anyway. People who always go straight down one side of the ballot, in my limited experience, aren't afraid to share their beliefs.

  6. Howard Pearce
    March 23, 2015 at 4:43 pm

    The voting process is run and put on by the government; so even tho you may have a right to vote, you don't have a right to how it is conducted. This process the government does have a right to control as long as your right to vote is respected.

    Beyond that, I suppose the concept of having a secret ballot is enough of a rationale to prohibit selfies .

    • Eva
      March 23, 2015 at 5:19 pm

      I doubt it works like that - a democratic state will have other laws (which the government must adhere to just like all citizens do), laying out the basic principles for elections, and citizens of course have a right to these principles being observed. Otherwise, any voting process would do. A government could decide to have people fill out a ballot listing only the ruling party, with any ballot that doesn't have it marked declared invalid - by your rules, people's "right to vote" would be observed by that, and no one would have a right to complain?

    • Howard Pearce
      March 23, 2015 at 5:58 pm

      I am not surprised things may not work that way, but I m not here to support the status quo .... much less any view of democracy where the democracy is rules.

    • Dann Albright
      March 29, 2015 at 7:24 pm

      The government may have the right to control how the voting is conducted, but whether or not that should include a ban on ballot selfies is the question; is it something that's really a threat to the anonymous voting system? Or are a few outspoken members of the old guard who can't come to grips with the new ways that we use to communicate making a big deal out of nothing? And does posting a picture of your ballot really make it any less secret than posting an update that includes who you voted for? These are the questions that are at stake here.

  7. Eva
    March 23, 2015 at 4:05 pm

    Well, my great-grandfather lost his employment and with it, I believe, his housing and everything else, due to a marked ballot. But even with the arguments quoted in the article, I still don't see how some very few people voluntarily posting images of their own ballots means a danger that this sort of thing is repeated. Wouldn't do it myself, but mostly because I don't see the need to document every moment of my life with a cellphone photo.

    I looked, and apparently it's not allowed where I live, but only because it makes the ballot invalid as it hasn't been filled out unobservedly. A person doing it would technically have to be made to use a new ballot instead by the attendants in the voting room. Obviously election laws are from pre-internet days, and I haven't read anything about it being an actual issue in my country.

    That said, a lot of this debate seems to be taking place in the US. I'm not American, but from what I read, aren't there far bigger problems in the US election system than this? Where I live, you don't have to register for anything, you get a mailed notification about every election you are allowed to vote in, and everyone except people convicted of some very few political crimes may vote. There is no "gerrymandering", or laws targeted to prevent specific population groups from being able to vote, and things like that notorious Florida ballot don't exist either.

    I agree with the article's summary. To me too, this looks rather like a distraction manoeuver to make it seem as if something being done for voting rights, while concentrating on something that is not actually a problem at this moment over the things that are. Coupled with a dose of "kids today and their modern gadgets! And what is that 'instagram' and 'twitter' anyway?", it will probably please some people while doing absolutely nothing.

    • Dann Albright
      March 29, 2015 at 7:22 pm

      Yes, there are absolutely bigger issues that need to be dealt with . . . but when has that ever kept politicians from arguing over something? :-) This has become a much bigger deal than it should be, but people are still talking about it. Hopefully everyone will calm down in the near future. Thanks for reading!

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