The secret ballot is largely undisputed as a democratic principle. What this principle means in practice, however, may be contested when voting takes place outside the polling station in a so-called uncontrolled environment, i.e., remote voting including Internet voting, postal voting and telephone voting. Remote voting transfers the responsibility for vote secrecy from the authorities to the voters. The popular understanding of the principle of the secret ballot, therefore, becomes crucial, because this may influence whether voters actually keep their vote secret. The secrecy of the vote has two aspects. First, it requires that voters are able to cast their votes in private, unobserved by anyone. Second, it requires that no one is able to break the anonymity of the vote at a later stage. Even though both aspects are important, we focus on the former. Voter attitudes towards the privacy aspect have received little attention in the literature on remote voting. The secrecy of the vote is usually taken for granted, and questions about this issue are therefore rarely asked in surveys.
The issue was brought to the fore in two Norwegian Internet voting trials. The first trial with Internet voting in Norway included 10 municipalities in the 2011 local election. Two years later, a new trial was held in 12 municipalities at the 2013 parliamentary election – the 10 municipalities from the 2011 trials and two new ones. More than 250,000 eligible voters had the opportunity to cast an Internet vote in 2013. The Internet voting trials were controversial, and a new government decided to discontinue the trials in 2014.
Even though there will not be any Internet voting in Norway in the foreseeable future, the trial experience may shed light on how voters understand the principle of the secret ballot in a context of remote voting. We used a representative population survey in the trial municipalities to explore public opinion on the principle of the secret ballot as well as Internet voting. Moreover, we explored how citizens applied the principle of ballot secrecy to concrete situations; in the survey, we developed different scenarios and asked the respondents whether they perceived these situations to be acceptable or not.
In the Norwegian case, public opinion was strongly in favour of Internet voting. At the same time, there was solid support for the principle of the secret ballot. To combine these two positions might be tricky, for citizens as well as policy-makers. Internet voting transfers – at least partly – the responsibility to safeguard the secret ballot from the state to the individual voter. The question is whether the voter is ready to accept this responsibility. The state may provide an elaborate set of security mechanisms to help the voter to keep his or her vote secret. The Norwegian authorities provided security mechanisms for Internet voting that represent considerable progress, compared to postal voting. The fact that a paper ballot cast in a controlled environment always cancels previous Internet votes was a measure to ensure the secret ballot. There is still a question of whether the voters actually use these mechanisms when they are needed. This freedom of choice will not present a problem for most voters, but groups of vulnerable voters may be more exposed to undue influence than others or may choose to consciously sell their vote.