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Is There a Secret Ballot? Ballot Secrecy Perceptions and Their Implications for Voting Behaviour

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 July 2012


Do people believe the votes they cast are truly secret? Novel items added to a nationally representative survey show that 25 per cent of respondents report not believing their ballot choices are kept secret and over 70 per cent report sharing their vote choices with others. These findings suggest that standard models of candidate choice should account for the potential effects of doubts about ballot secrecy. Consistent with this view, regression analysis shows that social forces appear to have a greater effect on vote choices among people who doubt the formal secrecy of the ballot. This analysis supports the broader claim that the intended benefits of institutional rules may not be realized if people's perceptions of these rules differ from their formal characteristics.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2012

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Gerber and Huber at Department of Political Science and Institution for Social and Policy Studies, Yale University; Doherty at Department of Political Science, Loyola University Chicago; Dowling at Department of Political Science, University of Mississippi (email: This research was funded by Yale's Center for the Study of American Politics and Institution for Social and Policy Studies. Data and supporting materials necessary to reproduce the numerical results will be made available at upon publication. An earlier version of this article was presented at the 2009 meeting of the American Political Science Association. We thank Kevin Arceneaux, John Bullock, Rachel Vanessa Cobb, Jamie Druckman, Susan Hyde, Gabriel Lenz, Neil Malhotra, Marc Meredith, Eric Patashnik, Eric Schickler, the anonymous referees and the Editor for feedback on earlier versions. An appendix containing additional information is available online at:


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26 Fewer than 1 per cent of respondents failed to respond to any individual question. We restrict our analysis to the 804 participants who responded to each of the ballot secrecy items and who completed the post-election wave of the survey where the presidential vote choice question used in the analyses below was asked.

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37 Minor party voters, of whom there are fewer than ten in our weighted sample, are also specified as the midpoint of the scale in our primary analysis.

38 We obtain highly similar results to those presented in Table 2 when additive scales of standardized (M = 0, SD = 1) items are used to measure each secrecy concept. The Cronbach's alphas are 0.496 and 0.763 for these psychological and social secrecy scale scales, respectively. These results are available upon request.

39 There is not a statistically significant effect for the interaction of social secrecy and union status.

40 The linear combination of the coefficient on psychological secrecy and the interaction between psychological secrecy and the union household indicator is: −0.113 (p < 0.05).

41 The interactions between psychological secrecy and the partisanship indicators fall short of conventional levels of statistical significance; p = 0.139.

42 To the extent that some respondents are only faced with situations where they would disclose their choices to like-minded individuals, these estimates understate the potential consequences of social secrecy.

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50 Note too that this finding suggests it is not simply that non-trusting individuals are somehow different (ideologically) from their environments because we control for individuals’ social identities (partisanship and union membership) and those policy preferences (ideology).

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