February 2012 Archives

Online Voting Secrecy

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This is an interesting story about the security of online voting. The technologists are, of course, right that these systems are (almost?) all completely insufficient in protecting security. And the bureaucrats are right that it doesn't need to be perfect ... though it does need to be much better.

But both, and the journalist (Miles O'Brien), miss the point that voting secrecy is not solved by online voting, it's exacerbated.

O'Brien says, "Commander Wells ended up faxing in his marked ballot, relinquishing his constitutional right to secrecy."

Like most people in this debate, he don't understand what voting secrecy is. The principle of secrecy in voting is not that you are allowed to keep your vote a secret, but that you are NOT allowed to NOT keep your vote a secret. You can tell someone how you voted, but they'll never know for certain because they didn't actually see you vote.

This means that any time you are voting outside of a private polling booth, you are surrendering your right to secrecy. This includes all forms of voting at home, whether via absentee ballot or online.

The reason this principle exists is primarily so that no one can coerce you. Wells could have his commanding officer looking over his shoulder as he votes. Employers influencing employees. Unions influencing workers. Husbands influencing wives, or vice versa, or influencing their adult kids.

It's also to help prevent selling your vote. Online voting exacerbates this problem: people could sell their authentication information, and then someone else could literally vote for them.

That's not to say we can't have absentee voting. But when we do, we literally give up our right to voting secrecy.

In the state of Washington, where I live, we have no more right to secrecy, because the state is (except for one county) all vote-at-home. You can mail in your ballot, or you can drop it off in a (somewhat) secured box. If you're like me, and you recognize the importance of secrecy, and you have the time, you travel to your county auditor's office on election day and vote on the Disabled Access Voting machines, which are the only way you can still have a secret ballot in most of the state.

The Roman Catholic Church says that contraception is a sin, and that therefore providing contraception is a sin. The same church also believes it is their duty to provide health care through hospitals, and education through schools and universities. Those institutions are, if anything is, establishments of religion.

So it seems obvious to me to say that government forcing those institutions to commit a sin violates the First Amendment's prohibition of laws respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise of religion. But that's precisely what President Obama is threatening to do, should he win another term: force an establishment of religion to commit a sin.

I don't even believe contraception is a sin, personally; but I respect the right of people to refuse to engage in an act they believe is wrong. If they want to cause direct harm to others, I'll stand against it; but if they simply want to say, "we believe this is wrong, so we won't do it" ... that, to me, defines freedom, including religious freedom.

If you have a different opinion on the law here, I'm all ears. But if you want to talk about women's health issues, please, don't bother. The First Amendment rights of people being forced to buy things for other people is more important than the "right" of those people to have those things bought for them, and I refuse to entertain discussion about that subordinate issue unless someone can first demonstrate that the First Amendment is not being violated.

If you want to have a say in who the Republican nominee for President will be, and you are a registered voter citizen in the state of Washington, and you are not participating in the process to select the Democratic nominee, you are eligible to go to the precinct caucuses on March 3, 2012, and vote for a delegate to the county convention.

For a couple of decades or so, the Washington State Republican Party has used a mixture of convention delegate votes, and the statewide "presidential preference primary" vote, to determine delegate allocation to the national convention. But this year, to save money, the state has canceled the primary, so there will only be the caucus/convention process. If you want a say, you have to be involved.

Now, realize, the caucuses do not select who the state party's choice for candidate is. The news will report who "won," but it's a fiction. The winner will not actually be determined until the state convention. The caucuses pick delegates to the county conventions, the county conventions pick delegates to the state convention, the state convention picks delegates to the national convention.

You do not vote at the caucus for a presidential candidate, you vote for a delegate to the convention. It's like how you don't vote for Speaker of the House, you vote for a Representative who votes for Speaker of the House. But how you make your decision of which delegate to vote for can be based on any reasons you choose, just like some people vote for Congress based on whether the candidate will support Pelosi or Boehner for Speaker.

If you want to vote for someone because he is a good businessman, or tireless activist, or smart engineer, or local politician, or simply because they agree with you on the issues, you can do so. You can even vote for a delegate based on which presidential candidate they support, but that rarely happens, in my experience. Caucus-goers seem to care more about the delegates they select than the candidates those delegates support. That's not always the case, though, and this year may be different.

And here's the thing: the same thing happens at the county level. In theory, you could have 40 percent of the delegates elected at the precinct caucuses be for Mitt Romney, and 20 percent each for Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. But then that combined 60 percent goes to the county convention, and congeals around electing delegates who support Santorum, in order to prevent Romney from winning. So maybe 80 percent of the delegates to the state convention are for Santorum, and only 20 percent for Romney, even though Romney "won" the caucuses by a large plurality.

And then at state, maybe Santorum will drop out, and those delegates will end up switching to vote for pro-Gingrich delegates to national. We could have three different "winners," one at each level of the process.

All this to say a few things: if you want to participate in the process of selecting the GOP nominee, this is how you do it; you vote for delegates any way you want to, not necessarily by the candidate they support; the "winner" of the caucuses may not reflect who actually wins Washington's delegates.

Now, where is your caucus? I don't know. If you live in Snohomish County, go to the Sno Co GOP Caucus page and enter your legislative district and precinct. If you're from another county, check with your county party for more information.

And if you're a Democrat, go play ball that day, or something. It's not like you don't know who your candidate is going to be. But if you really want to participate, ask your county party. The procedures are not the same, so ignore most of what I said, except the part about this being your only way to participate. (And with the Democrats, that's not unique to this primary-less year: the Democrats have never used the presidential preference primary to determine delegate allocation. Literally, the primary vote for Democratic presidential candidates in Washington has always been meaningless. You have to go to the caucuses to have a say.)

Citizens United != Super PACs

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It's bizarre to me that so many people link Citizens United with the rise of "Super PACs." In fact, what makes a "Super PAC" legally possible is almost completely unrelated to Citizens United.

It's actually legal through a case called Speechnow v. FEC, which says quite simply that an independent group making independent expenditures for political speech cannot be limited in contributions to, or expenditures from, that group. This is obviously protected Free Speech: government cannot, for the purposes of limiting your speech, limit your money, because that is a de facto restriction on speech itself. Citizens United was cited in the case, but the case would've stood without it.

It's bizarre to me that anyone would have a problem with this. Ross Perot and George Soros can spend millions, even billions, of their own money to influence elections, but less-affluent citizens can't pool their resources to do the same thing? That's just nuts. So Speechnow was essentially inevitable.

What Citizens United did is say that a corporation -- not a PAC -- can spend unlimited dollars on a campaign. This includes contributing to a "Super PAC": that is where the two cases overlap, but the decisions are independent.

The one criticism I have sympathy for, regarding these rulings -- Speechnow in particular -- is that Super PACs are not subject to the same strict reporting requirements, such that we don't really know where all of the money is coming from. I think this is a good and necessary thing: anonymous political speech, including anonymous publishing of the speech in question (which is essentially what the anonymous contributions facilitate) is a hallmark of our republic. But I also understand that because of the problems of money in politics, disclosure can be an important tool for the electorate.

Frankly, I've been thinking lately we should work to encourage disclosure, rather than mandating it. We could even have laws about how disclosure is done, if it is done, to discourage dishonest disclosures. But if a committee wants to remain anonymous, so be it. Regarding such committees that don't do disclosure, TV stations could choose to not broadcast ads from them; news outlets could choose to refuse to reference their ads; donors could take a pledge to not contribute to them; and so on. We can solve this without laws, and thereby protect our right to anonymity while greatly discouraging it.

Disclosure issues aside, however, it still seems obvious to me that you cannot, while respecting the First Amendment, limit someone's expenditures for the purpose of limiting their speech. The First Amendment says No, and it also says that -- given that we have rights to assembly and petition -- that when we come together in groups, we still have our right to speech as a group.

<pudge/*> (pronounced "PudgeGlob") is thousands of posts over many years by Pudge.

"It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active. The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt."

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