Wisconsin goes to the polls tonight, in what is now the only Democrat primary scheduled in an almost six-week period: between the three primaries held three weeks ago and the Puerto Rico primary scheduled for 26 April.
The reason for the sudden emptying-out of the calendar, of course, is the Covid-19 crisis, which has made congregating in groups a dangerous activity and forced rescheduling or other changes to elections around the world.
Wisconsin’s governor, a Democrat, tried to get the vote converted to an all-mail ballot that would run until late May. But the Republican-controlled legislature has refused to allow any change. The most the Democrats were able to achieve was a court order to extend the deadline for return of postal votes (which Americans confusingly call “absentee” votes) by a week, to 13 April.
Overnight, the governor played his last card, issuing an executive order unilaterally postponing the election until 9 June. But the Wisconsin supreme court, in a 4-2 ruling, overruled him and ordered it to proceed. (It’s not just the Democrat contest at stake; there are state and local races on the ballot as well.)
There’s not much prospect of this making any difference to the outcome of the primary. Joe Biden is already the presumptive nominee, and he has a commanding lead in the polls in Wisconsin, as in the other remaining major contests. But it raises important questions about electoral fairness and integrity.
Covid-19 has resulted in many things that are normally done in person shifting to remote technology. It’s not at all surprising that voting would join the list. It’s unclear, however, how many of these sorts of “temporary” changes will end up being permanent, and there are very good reasons why voting should not be one of them.
Remote voting, whether postal or electronic, raises problems about security. Computer systems can be hacked; mail can be intercepted. Those problems are not insuperable: not in the sense that they can be eliminated entirely (ordinary in-person voting isn’t absolutely secure either), but risk can be reduced to manageable levels. Doing so, however, takes time and effort – and money, which governments are reluctant to spend even at the best of times.
Many voters wonder why online voting should be so difficult when they are used to doing, for example, their banking online, moving around thousands of dollars with the click of a mouse. Is security for voting more important than that?
It’s a good question, but there’s a good answer, and it reveals a deeper problem than just security. The difference is that you don’t care about the fact that your bank knows who you’re sending money to: you understand that that’s an unavoidable part of banking. But you do care – or if you don’t, others do – if the government knows who you’re voting for.
The secret ballot is fundamental to modern democracy. Without secrecy, voters can be bribed or intimidated; votes can be bought and sold; the vulnerable can be put at the mercy of parents, spouses, landlords, employers or party bosses.
And secrecy for that purpose means more than just your ability to conceal your vote if you choose. It means, ideally, that you have no alternative to concealing it – no way to prove who you are voting for (such as, for example, being permitted to photograph your ballot paper). As soon as you can prove how you voted, someone else can demand that proof in return for money, or for not being fired or beaten up.
This is the big problem with remote voting. Even if the system can guarantee that it’s you filling out the vote, and process it in complete secrecy, there’s no way it can guarantee that there isn’t someone looking over your shoulder making sure that you do it the way you’ve been told.
Contrast again with banking. If someone puts a gun to your head and makes you transfer money to them out of your account, you can (at least in principle) go to the bank later, show them what’s happened, and get your money back. But if you’ve been extorted to vote a particular way, you can’t then go and get it changed, because the system can’t tell whose vote is whose.
And while your money is worth as much to you as to anyone else, and therefore you can’t be bribed to give it away, that’s not necessarily the case with your vote. Cases of vote buying are often entirely consensual, so the crime is never even reported.
So remote voting is always problematic, because it removes the element of publicity that, paradoxically, is so important to the secret ballot. But we accept that as a price worth paying for the added convenience it provides for voters who would otherwise have difficulty getting to a polling place.
It’s quite different when in-person voting is done away with entirely – as, for example, in most Victorian local government elections. Then, verifiable secrecy is no longer an option. It also means you have lost the shared experience of communal decision-making, which many would argue is an important part of democracy.
Making it easier for people to vote by post is probably good for boosting turnout (which from the Republican point of view is a bug, not a feature). It’s not so clear, however, that switching to an all-postal election has the same effect: some studies have suggested that it can actually lead to lower turnout overall. (Another study reported similar problems with pre-poll voting.)
But unusual times demand unusual measures. At present there are no good options, but an all-postal ballot is less of an affront to democracy than an attendance election in which turnout plunges and those who vote risk spreading disease through the community.
Better still, it seems to me, to postpone elections for a short time wherever that is possible. The New South Wales government has recently given itself the power to postpone its local council elections, due in September, for a period up to the end of next year.
Wisconsin clearly can’t wait that long, but two months wouldn’t have hurt too much.