How secret is the Secret Ballot voting?


Secret Ballot is one of the most important features of an election. Secret ballot is a constitutional protection provided to the voter to ensure he can vote with free will. However, many people misunderstand or fails to appreciate it’s true value and hence unconsciously compromise it. In a true secret ballot even the election commissioner, election officer, court or the management committee should not be able know individual voter’s vote choice under any circumstance. Many clients want secret ballot feature just to tick off legal requirement, at the same time they want an option to check who voted for whom. It’s like eating the cake and having it too. In a real secret ballot, there should not be any option to find out who voted for whom. 

Let’s understand the concept of secret ballot from offline paper voting which we all are used to. In a paper based voting system, the voter drops the ballot paper in the ballot box after marking his vote. All voters drop their vote in the same box. All the ballot paper is same without any number, name or identification of the voter. Hence, when the ballot box is opened for counting, it is impossible to find out who voted for whom. If suppose the ballot paper are numbered and ballot papers can be traced back to an individual voter, then it is not a secret ballot. In such case, the voter can never rest assured that his vote preference would not be known and hence will never be able to vote with free will. 

Let take a step back and start with dictionary meaning:

Secret: something that is not or must not be known by other people

Ballot: a secret written vote

Secret Ballot:ballot in which votes are cast in secret.

Frankly, it’s a very simple concept. Vote cast in secret. Which means, nobody except the voter should know his individual vote choice. The objective of secret ballot is that a voter should be able to vote as per his free will and should not come under any pressure, whether physical or mental, while voting. In other words, there should not be any scope of coercion. (Coercion: the use of force to persuade someone to do something that they are unwilling to do) The coercion can be of two kinds:

  1. Physical coercion: Physical coercion is when voter is pressurised to vote in a particular manner and is physically harmed or threatened to be harmed if they do not vote as per in a particular manner.
  2. Mental coercion: Coercion where voter is not under the risk of physical harm, however, is under pressure to vote in a specific manner. These include a senior’s pressure on junior, a husband’s pressure on wife, a friend’s pressure on another friend. In such case, the voter votes as per the wishes of the person exerting pressure because the voter does not want to spoil his relationship with that person. 

The source of pressure or coercion can we of following kinds:

  1. Coercion by candidates
  2. Coercion by candidates’ representatives and well wishers
  3. Coercion by voter’s friends and family

In all kind of coercion, the problem is that voter is not voting as per his free will which is very important for the proper functioning of a democracy. Hence, constitution of a country and bylaws of associations, clubs, housing societies and other organizations provide for SECRET BALLOT. 

To ensure secret ballot, in booth based voting all voters are provided a small, enclosed space where the voter can vote without anybody being able to peep into his vote choice. In online voting, a voter is expected to vote when he is in a private space so that nobody can peep into his vote. 

Fake secret ballot

Fake secret ballot is a ballot which gives a fake assurance to the voter of secrecy but at the same time exposes the voter to the risk of coercion by keeping the option to break the secrecy. 

In paper ballot: In paper ballot voting, if the ballot paper is numbered, the election officer can later match the ballot number with the counterfoil and know individual voter’s vote choice. This is not a secret ballot. In 2017 Rajya Sabha election in Gujarat, election commission was able to cancel the vote after the vote was cast and dropped into the box. ( They were able to do it as ballot paper were numbered and the counterfoil has the name and identification of the voter.  This was possible as Rajya Sabha election does not require secret ballot or free will. In Rajya Sabha elections, the members are supposed to vote as per the whip of their party. 

In online voting: Few eVoting agencies claim to offer secret ballot feature where they keep the individual voter vote preference stored in the system in encrypted format. On court order or under certain circumstances, the encryption can be decrypted, and individual voter preference can be known. This is not a true secret ballot as the voter can never be sure that the data would not be decrypted. The voter would always feel the risk of election manager, court, management committee, election commission or the eVoting agency can decrypt and know his vote preference. If the voter does not trust the election officers and voting agency to keep the data secret, he would not take a chance and would not vote with free will.  

Right2Vote’s online voting platform provides a true secret ballot feature where under no circumstance and under no condition the voter’s individual vote preference can be know by anybody. Not even the election commissioner, election officer, management committee or the court can access the data of individual vote preference as the system does not store that data. In Right2Vote, we store the data that x voter has voted. We store the data that y candidate got one more vote. But we do not store the data that X voted for y. The system is similar to secret ballot in paper ballot based voting as explained in para 2. 

Conclusion: You can’t have the cake and eat it too. If secret ballot is required, it should remain a secret. Clients who ask for fake secret ballot or an option to see individual voter vote preference, in howsoever remote circumstances, are breaking the law. If the law requires in a particular election that secret ballot should be provided to voters, the client by employing fake secret ballot service is breaking the law and exposing himself and the management committee to risk of jail term. 

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