2066: Ballot Selfies

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Ballot Selfies
There were actually some good reasons for those laws, but IMO they now do more harm than good. Which raises a question: If there's a ballot measure to strike them down, how can I resist the urge to take a picture of my "yes" vote?
Title text: There were actually some good reasons for those laws, but IMO they now do more harm than good. Which raises a question: If there's a ballot measure to strike them down, how can I resist the urge to take a picture of my "yes" vote?


This comic was published six days prior to the 2018 United States general elections, also called midterm elections, because they happen halfway between two presidential elections, two years before and after. At the time, the xkcd header still provided a link to vote.org, a website that helps US citizens with essential voting issues, like how to register or how to find their polling locations. It is the first of three consecutive comics that deal with this election.

In the United States, "ballot selfies" refers to the practice of taking a picture of oneself with a completed ballot. These have been illegal in many states, due to laws passed to prevent vote selling.

Without proof of how a vote was cast, if someone bribed (or even violently coerced) a voter to vote for candidate A, the voter could just vote 'B' and the coercer would be unable to tell whether they voted as instructed. This is at the heart of the concept of "a secret ballot". But if ballot-selfies or other proof-of-vote mechanisms are permitted then the evil-doer can demand verification that the voter did what they were coerced to do — and this jeopardizes the idea of a truly free and fair election.

However, the "secret ballot" principle is not universally valued nor enforced. Some voting machines produce a paper receipt showing the choices the voter made — and many jurisdictions permit use of a postal ballot — so there are plenty of other ways to circumvent the law in those places. So the ban on ballot selfies is harder to justify unless those other lines of coercion are also ruled out.

On the other hand, the desire to take and distribute ballot selfies often comes from an excitement in participating in the voting process and the desire to share that excitement in the hopes of encouraging others to vote, and anything that helps get more people to the polls is generally considered to be a good thing. In addition, the law is incredibly difficult to enforce — there is little way to prevent somebody from photographing their ballot and privately showing this photo to somebody else — and the practice of enforcing it (i.e. searching for possible photographic devices all together) would make the local government incredibly unpopular. Lastly, voters storing evidence of their votes could be useful to prevent voting fraud performed by the state.

This dual threat/benefit has led some states to explicitly legalize ballot selfies, other states to specifically disallow them and even levy steep financial penalties, while the rest are still debating or ignoring the issue.

As Ponytail is aware of this law, she believes she has identified a solution wherein she will make an oil painting of her voting rather than taking a photograph. A painting being more of an artistic endeavor that doesn't have to faithfully record all aspects of the image, it may well be valid both on grounds of freedom of speech as well as not being a verbatim record of her vote - thereby preserving the secrecy of the ballot. Of course, making a painting of her vote may lead to additional problems. If she intends to paint the portrait herself, of herself (i.e. a self-portrait) casting her vote, it would be very difficult and time consuming to attempt to do that, especially without a mirror, which she apparently doesn't have with her and which is generally not standard issue in voting booths.[citation needed] She could also try to recruit someone else to do the painting, not knowing the level of their artistic talent, however, usually only the person casting the vote is allowed in the booth, and they are expected to close the curtain or otherwise ensure no outside person, like the painter, can view the vote casting act. It would also require her to stay in the booth longer than most voters.

While Hairbun and White Hat are simply standing in line, Megan can be seen using a mobile phone.

The comic might also be a reference to the existing ban of cameras in US courtrooms, which led US newspapers to widely adopt cartoons as a replacement.

In many US states, changes to state law can be made through the initiative and referendum process, which can be initiated and pursued by any citizen.

The title text refers to the legality of taking a ballot selfie whilst voting against the law against ballot selfies.


[Megan, Ponytail, Cueball, White Hat, and Hairbun are standing in a line with Hairbun in front. All are facing forward to the right except Cueball, who is looking to his left at Ponytail. Megan holds a phone in her hand while Ponytail carries an easel under her left arm and a paintbrush in her right hand.]
Ponytail: Ballot selfies are illegal in this state, so to immortalize my vote I'm doing an oil painting in the voting booth.

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What harm do laws banning ballot selfies do? Ryanker (talk) 15:51, 31 October 2018 (UTC)ryanker

After reading the Wikipedia article on this, I've realized that, similar to jaywalking and loitering laws, ballot selfies are so common that they cannot be effectively restricted. The result appears to be that enforcement only happens when there is some additional reason for it, reinforcing and strengthening existing oppressions and power dynamics. 00:23, 2 November 2018 (UTC)
You're coming at it from exactly the wrong direction. What harm does taking a ballot selfie do? (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
I'm against anyone who is holding up the line for the rest of us who are trying to vote, especially those egotistical who think anyone wants to see their stupid pictures. 05:24, 1 November 2018 (UTC)
Photos are pretty quick. I'm against those who are making oil paintings of their voting. -boB (talk) 13:13, 1 November 2018 (UTC)
I'm thinking the flavor text is talking as if from the point of view of someone who has grown used to sharing photos of themselves with others, to communicate, encourage, feel connected. Depicting their own behavior so directly might even seem a valid way to sway someone's opinion to such a person. I guess when thinking about it, it would support democracy better to share the act of voting rather than the actual vote made. Curious regarding other opinions. 16:09, 31 October 2018 (UTC)
yes, fully agree with this. Just take all the selfies you want on the way there, in front of the place where you vote, on the way back. Just not during that one minute you spend inside the booth, and not showing your actual ballot. If you absolutely want to disclose what you actually voted for, you can still do so by writing a caption. It's that simple, and probably legal in most places around the world.-- 16:22, 31 October 2018 (UTC)
Thought of another reason: if the government were to hack or misrepresent the vote, the people could use proof of voting to prove the fraud. 16:12, 31 October 2018 (UTC)
If a government can hack your vote, couldn't they hack your phone? ;-) Kev (talk) 16:28, 31 October 2018 (UTC)
But you could just print out the photo, and it becomes physical, unhackable proof. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
Additionally, to fake your vote, all they need to do is lie. 00:55, 1 November 2018 (UTC)
Ummm... wut? if they are going to hack the vote, winner-take-all statues mean they only need to hack so there's a simple majority in a majority of districts... nowhere NEAR enough people will have proof to outweigh that, except to the point where the government is truly totalitarian, at which point arresting you for taking that selfie becomes a much easier way to remove you from the voting process, than "hacking" voting registers. -- Brettpeirce (talk) 14:52, 7 February 2019 (UTC)
Banning photos in polling stations is sensible. If I offered you $1,000 to vote for Trump you would be mad not to agree - you could vote how you wanted, and tell me you voted for Trump and get your money. If photos were allowed, to get your money I could request a photo of you with your ballot paper. If people can take photos of their vote, people can buy votes. If they can't, it's much more difficult to do that. DrDave (talk) 12:44, 1 November 2018 (UTC)
Not just positive coercion but also negative - spouses, religious leaders, or whomever demanding proof that you'd voted the way they told you to "or else." 12:57, 1 November 2018 (UTC)
This is EXACTLY my point. My concern would be employers (e.g. Hobby Lobby) making voting for or against a specific candidate or issue a condition of employment. If ballot selfies are allowed, then there is no way to stop this. I don't mind selfies of people going into the polling place. However, there should be no (legal) way to take a picture of your ballot and make it public, including another voter, accidentally or not, capturing you and your ballot in the background of their selfie. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
There is "no (legal) way to" kill someone with a gun (unless you're the government) or extort money for your own personal use (unless you're the government) or imprison someone against their will (again, unless you're the government), but all of those things happen. A lot. Like a lot a lot. Laws only affect the law-abiding... the more of them there are, the less likely they are to be followed. -- Brettpeirce (talk) 14:57, 7 February 2019 (UTC)
But you could also take a picture of your vote, then request a new ballot due to making a mistake. Picture proof to collect your $1k, and still making the vote you really wanted. 21:21, 14 November 2018 (UTC)

In the United kingdom it is illegal to take a phtograph of the ballot paper even if no vote is recorded - as such an image could reveal the mark used to authenticate the ballot paper. Until recently this was a pattern of holed stamped into the paper as it is issued, though now printed bar codes are used. Theoretically if you know the mark, you could then stuff a ballot box. Although if the number of papers does not match that recorded by the returning clerk then the entire box would be declared invalid and the election rerun. Arachrah (talk) 16:45, 31 October 2018 (UTC)

I think you're saying that in states where vote selfies are legal, somebody might be able to use such a selfie to produce counterfeit ballots, and submit them. Also that the ballots are counted and a vote is rerun whenever the count is wrong, to additionally deter this. It's hard to believe that count is always correct for such huge numbers of physical objects each handled by a human being: does this rerun happen commonly? 00:55, 1 November 2018 (UTC)
Why would someone need to look at someone else's selfie to produce counterfeit ballots? Seems like a very round about way when it's easy enough to get an actual ballot yourself. 01:40, 1 November 2018 (UTC)
It's not about counterfeits - it's about The Secrecy Of The Ballot. It is essential to a free and fair election that the voter can vote in complete secrecy AND that they be completely unable to prove how they voted (or indeed, if they voted at all). In the UK, the way you voted (or IF you voted at all) is intended to be completely secret - only you know - and you have NO WAY to prove it. But selfies, printed paper receipts from eletronic voting machines and online or postal voting all circumvent that concept. The concept is important because if someone tries to coerce you to voting in a way you do not wish to - then that coercion will be ineffective if they cannot confirm that you did as they wanted you do to. I've updated the explain to try to cover this point more carefully. However, this alone is not enough - an evil-doer can instead find people who are demographically-likely to vote against their preferred candidate and instead coerce them to not vote at all - which isn't as effective as forcing them to vote the opposite way - but is still enough to flip the election. Some laws (such as in Texas) that make it increasingly hard for poorer people to vote by demanding proof-of-identity in ways they cannot manage is a classic example of that. Even a homeless person has a right to vote - but without papers that establish that they are who they claim to be - they are effectively disenfranchised - which is unconstitutional. SteveBaker (talk) 13:25, 1 November 2018 (UTC)
Hey SteveBaker; I really agree with your views here. I notice you removed the phrase "violent coercion" which I added when you made your edits. I have a smidge of experience with being violently coerced to do things, and how crowds of people who are for example addicted to the products of a drug lord can be forced to behave as he or she wishes in order to continue their lives. I feel it's really valuable to use the word "violent" here to bring people's minds into how intense this could become, or could be already in areas where votes are provable. I'll try a little to add it back, but if I disrupt the new flow I'm sorry, I do not mean to. 18:33, 1 November 2018 (UTC)

I have a question with this, what if you don't post your ballot selfies anywhere on social media platforms like Snapchat, Instagram, Imgur or Twitter and keeping the picture on your phone? Will they still be able to arrest you and find you guilty?Boeing-787lover 08:17, 4 November 2018 (UTC) -- Xkcdreader52 (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Something that I think you should consider is not just fraud and vote buying but people who do ballot selfies pressing others to do the same (which is actually happening!). In the GDR (East Germany) you were technically allowed to vote in secret but it was not mandatory. The result: if you voted secret you were considered part of the opposition and persecuted.
Now, there are people who encourage others to do ballot selfies to encourage turnout. But say, your friends all vote for Party A (the majority where you live) but you want to vote for Party B or Party C. Your friends are totally on board with the ballot selfie idea because they think it will increase voter turnout and pressure you to also participate. Now you either have to either justify who you're voting for, justify not sharing or give in to peer pressure.
Personally, I think that allowing ballot selfies is undemocratic. The fact that postal voting and electronic voting may compromise secrecy or that someone might secret take a picture anyway is not a justification - it means that people should be encouraged to vote in person, that there should be safeguards and observers from different parties for the count and that electronic voting (which comprises either secrecy or integrity) should be banned (which is actually the case in many or most European countries), and not that you should just give up on secrecy. Secrecy is integral to free elections. -- 11:04, 6 November 2018 (UTC)

Comment from an actual Maryland Voting Chief Judge

Being a Chief in Maryland means that I run a precinct with a co-chief who can not be registered with the same party. Maryland does ban the use of cell phones in precincts, to the point where there is a sign at the entrance to the precinct room saying that cell phones must be turned off. Voting Operations Judges (the people who work for me on election day) are not allowed to have phones either. My co-chief and I *do* for contact with the Board of Elections only. In practice, the no cell phone rule is based on two pillars, one being the Ballot Selfie reason, and the other, being that cell phones ringing or talking on cell phones is very annoying while people only 3 feet away from you are also voting. Yes, the fraud concept could be circumvented by taking a picture of your ballot and then screwing it up, filling in every circle and then when the scanner rejects it, getting a replacement ballot and voting the way that you want. (Maryland does it by filling out paper with bubbles like a standardized test and then scanning *and* keeping the ballot.

However in the 2018 election, I first started running into people putting who they wanted to vote for on their phone and then not being able to use it once they got to the precinct (The solution given is to hand the voter a piece of paper and a pen, stepping out and allowing them to copy the information down. But as that becomes more common, I'm not sure what the solution is. If I thought that half the people who walked into my precinct understood how to put their phones into airplane mode, I'd support that, but I've had too many people walk into my precinct who didn't know how to turn their phone *off*, so I'm not holding out much hope for that in the next decade.

As for the oil painting in the photo, as a Chief Judge, I'd be *really* torn. On the one hand, that would be really neat, on the other, they would be using a voting booth for much, much longer than most voters, and while anyone who enters by closing is allowed to vote, this probably keep me from going home at a reasonable hour. If they picked one of the less used Early Voting centers in my county on a slow day and started first thing in the morning, maybe they'd finish...

OTOH, my county's Board of Elections *does* encourage I voted selfies. Get your "I voted" stickers stand out in the hall and have fun. I've even volunteered to take photos of families!

TL;DR - Not legal in Maryland with explanation attached. -- Naraht (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)