Americans who vote in the 2020 election may discover that their votes are not as private as they expect.
Many states – including my home state of New Jersey – guarantee voters the right to a secret ballot, that is, that their choices during an election will be collected and stored anonymously, and remain anonymous forever. Secret ballots are essential in a free society because they reduce the ability of corrupt stakeholders to intimidate, bribe, or blackmail voters.
Yet, with the 2020 election being conducted in many locations primary by mail rather than in person, assurances that votes will remain secret are in danger. The same systems that are in place to prevent people from mailing in multiple ballots also open the door for the potential tracking of people’s votes. Worse yet, official ballot envelopes – which voters must use in order for their votes to count – are, at least in my area, see through.
Yes, see through.
To demonstrate the problem I simply held a flashlight that I purchased for $4.24 on Amazon up to my official exterior mailing envelope, with the official interior envelope containing my ballot inside of it. It took just seconds for me to locate the section where my choice for President was marked, and to see how I had voted. As I demonstrated in the photographs below, On ballots such as the ones being used in my area it is trivial for anyone holding a sealed ballot mailing envelope to see whether it contains a vote for Joe Biden or for Donald Trump. This vulnerability not only threatens the secrecy of votes, but may also enable rogue postal workers to selectively dispose of unwanted votes. (I will not actually be casting the ballot on which I ran the tests, but rather will vote using a replacement; the ballot sent to me was missing the slot for my district’s Congressional election, instead offering me the opportunity to (illegally) cast a vote for an election in another Congressional district.)
Below are photographs that I took of:
∙ My flashlight held up to the exterior envelope containing my ballot and interior envelope
∙ A clear reading through the envelope of a vote for Trump (the vote is cast to the left of the Biden column – I used yellow to highlight the area)
∙ A clear reading through the envelope of a vote for Biden (the vote is cast to the right of the Biden column – I used yellow to highlight the area)
I also included a photo of how the ballot appears when viewed through a #10 security envelope – such envelopes cost me less than 3 cents a piece on Amazon. While the obfuscation security envelopes offer may not be perfect, it certainly delivers far better privacy than see-through official mailers. I do not know why readily available and inexpensive security technology is not used in official ballot envelopes, but, in any case, if it you are voting by mail, and if it is legal to do so in your area without invalidating your vote (be sure to check this before casting your vote as such), you may wish to insert your ballot into a security envelope before placing it into the official interior envelope. Or, if possible, simply vote in person.