Show ‘Em

Earlier this week, an American court issued a decision on a topic that is all but certain to come up for discussion in the weeks after October 19: the ballot selfie, and the attempts ban it. Judge Barbadoro of the U.S. District Court in New Hampshire declared unconstitutional that state’s law that made it an offence to show one’s completed ballot to another person “with the intention of letting it be known how [one] is about to vote or … has voted,” including by means of “taking a digital image or photograph of [the] marked ballot and distributing or sharing the image via social media or by any other means.” Over at the Election Law Blog, Rick Hasen comments on the decision, hoping that it will be reversed on appeal.

For my part, as usual, I express no views on the propriety of this outcome under American law. However, because the issue has already come up in Canada (though without as yet resulting in a court judgment, so far as I can tell), and is very likely to come up again, I think it worthwhile to briefly summarize the court’s reasoning, and highlight a number of very interesting questions that it gives rise to.

Judge Barbadoro’s decision begins with a review of the history of the secret ballot ― or, as he calls it, the “Australian” ballot ― in the United States. As in the United Kingdom (about which I blogged here) and in Canada, elections prior to the introduction of the secret ballot were a brutal business. Corruption and intimidation, even violence, were commonplace. The use of the secret ballot, as well as legislation targeting such manipulation of the voters more directly, helped mostly (although not entirely, the judge says) eradicate it. Indeed, there is no evidence of voters being threatened or bought in New Hampshire recently, and the supporters of the ballot selfie prohibition did not cite any such cases, beyond one dubious anecdote, in defending the law.

Applying the analytical framework developed by the U.S. Supreme Court for freedom of expression cases, Judge Barbadoro then asks whether the prohibition is a “content-based” restriction on speech and, having concluded that it is, whether it is “narrowly tailored” to serve a “compelling government interest.” The judge concludes that the law meets neither of these conditions. While preventing corruption at the ballot box is a compelling interest in theory, the government must also “demonstrate” that it is invoking it to address an actual problem. Since there is no evidence of corruption or intimidation actually going on, the government has failed to do so:

even though small cameras capable of taking photographic images of ballots have been available for decades and cell phones equipped with digital cameras have been in use for nearly 15 years, the [State] has failed to identify a single instance anywhere in the United States in which a credible claim has been made that digital or photographic images of completed ballots have been used to facilitate vote buying or voter coercion. (32)

Judge Barbadoro adds that even if he had found the government’s interests compelling, he would still have held that the prohibition on ballot selfies is not “narrowly tailored.” Instead of banning people from sharing images of their ballots regardless of their motivations for doing so, it should focus on the use of such pictures to enable corruption and intimidation. In any case, “[t]he few who might be drawn into efforts to buy or coerce their votes are highly unlikely to broadcast their intentions via social media given the criminal nature of the schemes in which they have become involved.” (38)

The most important question judge Barbadoro’s conclusion elicits concerns the role of the courts in cases where they are dealing with prophylactic legislation, which aims not to address existing problems but to prevent problems from happening in the first place. By their nature, such laws are harder to justify by reference to evidence. And it stands to reason that that could open to the door to governmental abuse. Restricting constitutional rights “just in case” is a disturbing idea. Yet must the government wait for problems to arise before it can do anything about them? Especially when the problems at issue are not something inherently vague and uncertain, like the unfairness of the electoral process purportedly caused by the absence of campaign spending restrictions, but actual criminality, like bribery and intimidation. And all the more so when there is a history, albeit a somewhat remote history, of such problems actually happening.

The interpretation of this history is another big issue raised by Judge Barbadoro’s decision. What are we to make of the decline and virtual disappearance of voter bribery and intimidation in the wake of the adoption of the secret ballot and the enactment of the laws against such practices? How do we disentangle the effects of these laws from those of the secret ballot itself? Is the very success of these techniques a reason for letting ballot secrecy fall by the technological wayside? And then, there are questions about much more recent history ― specifically that of the ballot selfie and the innovations that enable it. Judge Barbadoro asserts that cellphone cameras have been around for 15 years, but how widespread were they then? The Oxford English Dictionary’s lexicographers have tracked down an example of the word “selfie” being used back in 2002, but the explosive spread of the phenomenon is surely more recent, and the idea of the “ballot selfie” might be more recent still. Is it, then, really the case that any problems that this phenomenon might generate ought to have become manifest, as Judge Barbadoro suggests? (Incidentally, while his opinion provides a wealth of citations to materials on the history of the ballot, this technological history is merely asserted.)

Finally, I think it is worth asking whether outright corruption or threats are the only reasons to worry about ballot selfies. In fairness to Judge Barbadoro, they were the only reasons asserted by the New Hampshire prohibition’s defenders. And the judge is probably right that people involved in corruption or subject to intimidation are unlikely to post their ballot selfies on social media. They’ll just show them to the persons paying or threatening them, and go undetected. But should we not also be concerned about the more diffused social pressure that can be brought to bear on people who let ― or those who fail to let ― others know how they voted? Should we not worry about people being pressured to vote, or to vote in a particular way, and to prove that they have done so, not by a specific manipulator, but by their online peers? People involved in “shaming” a person who didn’t vote to their satisfaction might not be committing an offence, and the line between legitimate and immoral behaviour in this realm is probably too blurry to lend itself to legal implementation. In this respect, the prophylactic prohibition on ballot selfies might actually be necessary.

As I said that in the post linked to above, I believe that the secret ballot “was one of the greatest inventions of a century that did not lack for them, and there is no reason to give it up.” And I am inclined to further believe that even coercive enforcement of ballot secrecy is justified. My hunch is that Canadian courts would agree, though I haven’t thought the matter through in detail. (I’ll try to do that before October 19.) In the state whose motto is “live free or die,” however, you’re now entitled not just to tell people how you voted, but to show them, too.

UPDATE: Prof. Hasen now has an op-ed for Reuters, further explaining his views. His most compelling argument, in my view, is the following:

the effectiveness of the selfie ban and the continued occasional prosecutions for vote buying, especially for absentee ballots, show that where there can be verification of how someone voted, this is a real — not theoretical — problem.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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