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The Secret Ballot is U.S. Democracy’s Last Line of Defense

Voter intimidation has cropped up in places across the nation

Though foreign disinformation campaigns have targeted the 2022 United States midterm elections to a degree, most of the pressure on US voting infrastructure has come from inside the house. Violent domestic threats against election officials have soared around the country in the past couple of years, endangering workers and, increasingly, driving them from the profession altogether. And as early voting began around the U.S. in recent days, scattered incidents at ballot drop boxes and polling places have put voters on edge. Last week, a federal judge in Arizona notably ordered armed members of a group called Clean Elections USA to stop visibly carrying guns and wearing body armor within 250 feet of ballot drop boxes.

Officials and researchers say that casting a ballot will be safe and uneventful for the vast majority of U.S. voters. They also emphasize, as was the case in 2020, that U.S. elections are in fact the most secure and rigorous they have ever been thanks to a number of initiatives, including efforts to phase out voting machines that do not produce a paper backup and the expanded use of post-election audits, including gold standard “risk-limiting" audits. Yet, erosion of public trust in any election system is as big a threat to the democracy it underpins as real-world meddling. With so much at stake, the 2022 U.S. midterms are highlighting the criticality of one core U.S. voting protection: the secret ballot.

"The secret ballot is really profound—it’s critical to capturing the true will of the people," said Ben Adida, the executive director of VotingWorks, a nonprofit maker of open source voting equipment. "People who would break your kneecaps or physically threaten you at the polls represent one extreme, but there are also much more subtle ways that undue influence could affect the outcome of an election. Think about people who support a candidate but don't feel that strongly about it. They might think, 'Well, do I really want to fight with my spouse or my employer? It's just one vote.'"

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