Jul 16, 9:58 AM EDT
Ballot secrecy compromised in NM, other states
By BARRY MASSEY
Associated Press Writer
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) -- Retired state worker Joyce Pankey cast her absentee ballot in New Mexico's primary election last month thinking that she alone knew which of the candidates she favored.
For Pankey and hundreds of voters in New Mexico, and potentially those in a handful of other states, the secret ballot is not so secret. It's possible to learn the identities of voters and which candidates they supported by checking public records. Detailed election data, which lawmakers have demanded to help them with their campaigns and redistricting, often is the culprit.
"It shocks the hell out of me," Pankey said when an Associated Press reporter recently told her how she had voted and how that could be determined. She was the only person to cast an absentee ballot in her Santa Fe precinct.
Ballot secrecy is a bedrock principle of the nation's electoral system, but it's compromised in places like New Mexico, Florida and California, where election results are broken down with precinct-by-precinct tallies for different types of ballots.
In New Mexico, there are absentee ballots that can be returned by mail, early in-person voting and Election Day balloting at polling locations.
In precincts where only one or a handful of voters participated, it's possible to identify voters and determine who they supported by cross-checking public records - a roster of voters who cast ballots in a precinct and the precinct-by-precinct results.
There were at least 370 single-vote precincts in this year's Democratic and Republican primaries in New Mexico, according to a review of election results by The Associated Press.
In precincts with dozens or hundreds of voters, ballot secrecy is preserved.
Basically, some precincts have only a few voters. Records are generally maintained of who voted; these people are called "inveterate voters". If you cross-reference the list of who voted with the list of what votes were tallied in a precinct, it is possible to figure out who voted for which candidate.
Obviously, this is a problem in a small precinct where only one voter voted - the results for that precinct would have to be maintained confidential.
However, theoretically, if you have one hundred votes cast in one precinct in one race, but all were for the same candidate, then the confidentiality of which way the vote went in that race in that precinct could not be maintained by releasing the results, even though there were many votes cast.
With enough analysis, and comparing the results of many races and many elections, it is theoretically possible under certain circumstances to get a pretty good idea how some individual voters vote, though this is true mainly in the smaller precincts. The results of this work could easily be offset by voters who just get fed up with one party and change the way they vote.
Aggregated results may be more useful. A neighborhood will likely have people who tend to think a certain way, and who generally agree on certain political issues. Even as people move in and out of the neighborhood, this aggregated behavior will probably change only slowly over time; more rapid changes dealing with certain issues or as a result of certain demographic changes can be better identified other than by trying to track individual voters.
To maintain voter confidentiality, it takes discretion and a degree of judgement on the part of the workers in the election office. Citizens can perhaps best ensure this by involving themselves in the election process and informing themselves as to how that process works, and asking about procedures about which they may have doubts.
This issue in New Mexico (and elsewhere) demonstrates that they need to be a little more careful, but at this point I wouldn't make too big a deal out of this. In my opinion, of far more concern are voting machines and deliberate election fraud - topics for another post.
By the way - many people complain they have no one to vote for in the general elections, but these people then fail to vote in the primary elections. The primary election is where voters choose the candidates who will be in the general election. If you don't like your choice in the general election, but didn't vote in the primary, then you are part of the problem.
Bottom line: get involved, and become an inveterate voter - the kind that votes in Presidential elections, off-year elections (when US Representatives, one third of US Senators, and many corresponding state officials, as well as many state officers and other officials are chosen) and odd-year elections (often for municipal officials); vote in the primary and in the general elections.
Educate yourself, debate the issues, exercise your Constitutional rights, and vote inveterately.
This is what makes America the oldest and the boldest of democratic republics, and if we continue to participate, we can renew our republic's democratic principles and be the latest and the greatest.