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Ballot Secrecy Compromised By Detailed Election Data

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SANTA FE, N.M. — Retired state worker Joyce Pankey cast her absentee ballot in New Mexico's primary election last month thinking that she alone knew which of the candidates she favored.

Wrong.

For Pankey and hundreds of voters in New Mexico, and potentially those in a handful of other states, the secret ballot is not so secret. It's possible to learn the identities of voters and which candidates they supported by checking public records. Detailed election data, which lawmakers have demanded to help them with their campaigns and redistricting, often is the culprit.

"It shocks the hell out of me," Pankey said when an Associated Press reporter recently told her how she had voted and how that could be determined. She was the only person to cast an absentee ballot in her Santa Fe precinct.

Ballot secrecy is a bedrock principle of the nation's electoral system, but it's compromised in places like New Mexico, Florida and California, where election results are broken down with precinct-by-precinct tallies for different types of ballots.

In New Mexico, there are absentee ballots that can be returned by mail, early in-person voting and Election Day balloting at polling locations.

In precincts where only one or a handful of voters participated, it's possible to identify voters and determine who they supported by cross-checking public records – a roster of voters who cast ballots in a precinct and the precinct-by-precinct results.

There were at least 370 single-vote precincts in this year's Democratic and Republican primaries in New Mexico, according to a review of election results by The Associated Press.

In precincts with dozens or hundreds of voters, ballot secrecy is preserved.

New Mexico enacted its current system of election results reporting in 2003 because legislators wanted detailed information on absentee and early voting to help in redrawing boundaries of elective office districts after the 2010 census. That voting has become an increasingly larger share of turnout in New Mexico elections. Previously, those votes were lumped together in each county's results and weren't available precinct-by-precinct.

If lawmakers know the voting behavior of a precinct – whether its residents historically favor Democrats or Republicans – they can more precisely tailor a district to protect an incumbent or political party.

In Florida, a 2006 law provided for precinct-level reporting of election results in counties by each type of ballot.

"It's strictly because of one reason and one reason only – gerrymandering," said Ion Sancho, the Leon County supervisor of elections in Tallahassee. "We didn't need to do it in terms of results, but it all fell on deaf ears."

Acknowledging the secret ballot can be compromised, Sancho said: "This is something that affects all low-turnout elections when you have that kind of reporting."

The detail of election results varies widely from state to state, and sometimes from county to county. Because of that, it's difficult to pinpoint how often voters potentially have ballot secrecy jeopardized.

It apparently happens infrequently, but the potential exists in places where election results are broken down by ballot types and precincts or other small districts. That occurs in some counties or municipalities in Colorado, Delaware, New Jersey, Texas, California, Florida and New Mexico.

In some of those states, elections officials try to protect ballot secrecy by merging small precinct voting results. In most states, voters retain their privacy because the results from absentee or early ballots are folded into precinct totals for other votes, or absentee ballot results are aggregated in a separate precinct within a county.

However, the potential for ballot secrecy problems could grow.

Kimball Brace, president of the Washington-based consulting firm Election Data Services, said redistricting demands may prompt more states to consider detailed breakdowns of election results.

"I think you'll find with this round of redistricting, this issue will be revisited," said Brace.

New Mexico has tried to provide ballot safeguards. A 2007 law directs the secretary of state to ensure precinct-level election returns don't breach ballot secrecy. But Denise Lamb, who runs the Santa Fe County bureau of elections, has filed a complaint with the New Mexico attorney general's office contending the state has failed to implement any protections.

"It's a violation of the Constitution. We have a constitutional right to the secret ballot," Lamb said.

Besides the hundreds of single-vote precincts in New Mexico's June primary, there were dozens with two, three or some other small number of voters. It's possible to know how those people voted if all the individuals supported the same candidate in any given race.

That's the case for Santa Fe retiree Robert Hanagan and his wife, Nancy. They were the only voters to cast absentee ballots in their precinct.

"I find it appalling that there is some way to identify how I voted. I don't think it's anybody's damn business," he said when told by the AP how public records make it possible to know his vote.

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Associated Press election research coordinator Clifford Maceda in New York contributed to this report.

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