Do Perceptions of Ballot Secrecy Influence Turnout? Results from a Field Experiment


  • The survey reported here was funded by the National Science Foundation (Grant #1041085 to Alan S. Gerber and Gregory A. Huber); the field experiment was funded by Yale University's Center for the Study of American Politics and Institution for Social and Policy Studies. Earlier versions of this article were presented at George Mason University and the 2011 meetings of the European Political Science Association and American Political Science Association. We thank Kevin Arceneaux, John Bullock, Ryan Enos, Michael Herron, Neil Malhotra, Costas Panagopoulos, Betsy Sinclair, Lynn Vavreck, the anonymous reviewers, and the editor for feedback on earlier versions. Data and supporting materials are available at and the AJPS Dataverse at


Although the secret ballot has been secured as a legal matter in the United States, formal secrecy protections are not equivalent to convincing citizens that they may vote privately and without fear of reprisal. We present survey evidence that those who have not previously voted are particularly likely to voice doubts about the secrecy of the voting process. We then report results from a field experiment where we mailed information about protections of ballot secrecy to registered voters prior to the 2010 general election. Consistent with our survey data, we find that these letters increased turnout for registered citizens without records of previous turnout, but they did not appear to influence the behavior of citizens who had previously voted. The increase in turnout of more than three percentage points (20%) for those without previous records of voting is notably larger than the effect of a standard get-out-the-vote mailing for this group. Overall, these results suggest that although the secret ballot is a long-standing institution in the United States, beliefs about this institution may not match the legal reality.