Ballot - Encyclopedia

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BALLOT (from Ital. ballotta, dim. of balla, a ball), the modern method of secret-voting employed in political, legislative and judicial assemblies, and also in the proceedings of private clubs and corporations. The name comes from the use of a little ball 2 dropped according to choice into the right receptacle; but nowadays it is used for any system of secret-voting, even though no such ball is employed. In ancient Athens, the dicasts, in giving their verdict, generally used balls of stone (psephi) or of metal (sponduli). Those pierced in the centre, or black in colour, signified condemnation; those unpierced, or white, signified acquittal. The boxes were variously arranged; but generally a brass box received both classes of votes, and a wooden box received the unused balls. In the assembly, cases of privilegia, such as ostracism, the naturalization of foreigners or the release of state-debtors, were decided by secret-voting. The petalism, or voting by words on olive-leaves, practised at Syracuse, may also be mentioned. At Rome the ballot was introduced to the comitia by the Leges Tabellariae, of which the Lex Gabiana (139 B.C.) relates to the election of magistrates, the Lex Cassia (137 B.C.) to judicia populi, and the Lex Papiria (131 B.C.) to the enactment and repeal of laws. The wooden tabellae, placed in the cista or wicker box, were marked U. R. (uti rogas) and A. (antiquo) in the case of a proposed law; L. (libero) and D. (damno) in the case of a public trial; in the case of an election, punca were made opposite the names or initials of the candidates. Tabellae were also used by the Roman judices, who expressed their verdict or judgment by the letters A. (absolvo), C. (condemno), and N. L. (non liquet). In modern times voting by ballot is usually by some form of writing, but the use of the ball still persists (especially in clubs), and a "black ball" is the regular term for a hostile vote.

Great Britain

In Great Britain the ballot was suggested for use in parliament by a political tract of the time of Charles II. It was actually used by the Scots parliament of 1662 in proceeding on the Billeting Act, a measure proposed by Middleton to secure the ostracism of Lauderdale and other political opponents who were by secret-vote declared incapable of public office. The plan followed was this: each member of parliament wrote, in a disguised hand, on a piece of paper, the names of twelve suspected persons; the billets were put in a bag held by the registrar; the bag was then sealed, and was afterwards opened and its contents ascertained in the exchequer chamber, where the billets were immediately burned and the names of the ostracised concealed on oath. The Billeting Act was repudiated by the king, and the ballot was not again heard of till 1705, when Fletcher of Saltoun, in his measure for a provisional government of Scotland by annual parliaments in the event of Queen Anne's death, proposed secret-voting to protect members from court influence. The gradual emancipation of the British parliament from the power of the crown, and the adoption of a strictly representative system of election, not only destroyed whatever reason may once have existed for the ballot in deliberative voting, but rendered it essential that such voting should be open. It was in the agitations for parliamentary reform at the beginning of the 19th century that the demand for the ballot in parliamentary elections was first seriously made. The Benthamites advocated the system in 1817. At the so-called Peterloo Massacre (1819) several banners were inscribed with the ballot. O'Connell introduced a bill on the subject in 1830; and the original draft of Lord John Russell's Reform Bill, probably on the suggestion of Lords Durham and Duncannof, provided for its introduction. Later on the historian Grote became its chief supporter in the House of Commons; and from 1833 to 1839, in spite of the ridicule cast by Sydney Smith on the "mousetrap," and on Grote's "dagger-box, in which you stab the card of your favourite candidate with a dagger," 1 the minority for the ballot increased from 106 to 217. In 1838 the ballot was the fourth point of the People's Charter. In the same year the abolition of the land qualification introduced rich commercial candidates to the constituencies. Lord Melbourne's cabinet declared the question open. The cause, upheld by Macaulay, Ward, Hume (in his resolutions, 1848) and Berkeley, was strengthened by the report of Lord Hartington's Select Committee 1 For a description of Grote's card-frame, in which the card was punctured through a hole, and was thus never in the voter's hands, see Spectator, 25th February 1837.

(15th March 1870), to the effect that corruption, treating and intimidation by priests and landlords took place to a large extent at both parliamentary and municipal elections in England and Ireland; and that the ballot, if adopted, would probably not only promote tranquillity at elections, but protect voters from undue influence, and introduce greater freedom and purity in voting, provided secrecy was made inviolable except in cases where a voter was found guilty of bribery, or where an invalid vote had been given.

Meanwhile in Australia the ballot had been introduced by the Constitution Act of South Australia (1856), and in other colonies at the same date. In South Australia (Electoral Act of 1858) the returning-officer put his initials on the voting-card, which the voter was directed, under pain of nullity, to fold so that the officer might not see the vote which was indicated by a cross. In Victoria, under the Electoral Act of 1865, the officer added to his initials a number corresponding to the voter's number on the register. In Tasmania the chief peculiarity was that (as in South Australia) the card was not put directly by the voter into the box, but handed to the officer, who put it there(this being thought a security against double-voting or voting with a non-official Lard, and also against the voter carrying away his card). In 1869, at Manchester and Stafford in England, test-ballots were taken on the Australian system as practised in Victoria - the voting-card containing the names of all the candidates, printed in different colours (for the benefit of illiterate voters), and the voter being directed to score out the names of those he did not support, and then to place the card (covered by an official envelope) in the box. It was found at Manchester that the voting was considerably more rapid, and therefore less expensive, than under the old system; that only 80 cards out of 11,475 were rejected as informal; and that, the representatives of candidates being present to check false statements of identity, and the public outside being debarred from receiving information what voters had voted, the ballot rather decreased the risk of personation. At Manchester the cards were not numbered consecutively, as in Victoria, so that (assuming the officials to be free from corruption) no scrutiny could have detected by whom particular votes were given. At Stafford the returning-officer stamped each card before giving it to the voter, the die of the stamp having been finished only on the morning of the election. By this means the possibility was excluded of what was known as "the Tasmanian Dodge," by which a corrupt voter gave to the returning-officer, or placed in the box, a blank non-official ticket, and carried out from the booth his official card, which a corrupt agent then marked for his candidate, and gave so-marked to corrupt voter No. 2 (before he entered the booth) on condition that he also would bring out his official card, and so on ad libitum; the agent thus obtaining a security for his bribe, unless the corrupt voter chose to disfranchise himself by making further marks on the card. At the close of 1870 the ballot was employed in the election of members for the London School Board under the Education Act of that year.

In 1872 W. E. Forster's Ballot Act introduced the ballot in all parliamentary and municipal elections, except parliamentary elections for universities; and the code of procedure prescribed by the act was adopted by the Scottish Education Board in the first School Board election (1873) under the Education (Scotland) Act 1872. The Ballot Act not only abolished public nominations of candidates, but dealt with the offence of personation and the expenses of elections.

As practised in the United Kingdom, a white paper is used on which the names of the candidates are printed in alphabetical order, the voter filling up with a X the blank on the right-hand opposite the name he votes for. The paper, before being given out, is marked by the presiding-officer on both sides with an official stamp, which is kept secret, and cannot be used for a second election within seven years. The paper is marked on the back with the same number as the counterfoil of the paper which remains with the officer. This counterfoil is also marked with the voter's number on the register, so that the vote may be identified on a scrutiny; and a mark on the register shows that the voter has received a ballot-paper. The voter folds up the paper so as to conceal his mark, but to show the stamp to the officer, and deposits it in the box, which is locked and sealed, and so constructed that papers cannot be withdrawn without unlocking it. Papers inadvertently spoiled by the voters may be exchanged, the officer preserving separately the spoiled papers. If a voter is incapacitated from blindness, or other physical cause, or makes before the officer a declaration of inability to read, or when the poll is on a Saturday declares himself a Jew, the officer causes the paper to be marked as the voter directs, and keeps a record of the transaction. A voter who claims to vote after another has voted in respect of the same qualification, obtains a (green) paper which is not placed in the box, but preserved apart as a "tendered" paper. He must, however, declare his identity and that he has not already voted. The presiding-officer at the close of the poll has to account to the returning-officer for the papers entrusted to him, the number being made up by - (1) papers in the box, (2) spoiled papers, (3) unused papers and (4) tendered papers. During the voting (for which schoolrooms and other public rooms are available, and for which a separate compartment must be provided for every 150 electors entitled to vote at a station) agents of candidates are allowed to be present in the polling-station, but they, as well as the officials, are sworn to secrecy as regards who have voted, and for whom; and they are prohibited from interfering with the voter, inducing him to show his vote, or attempting to ascertain the number on the back of the paper. These agents are also present with the returning-officer when he counts the papers and the votes, rejecting those papers - (1) which want the official mark on the back; (2) on which votes are given for more candidates than the voter is entitled to vote for; (3) on which anything except the number on the back is marked or written by which the voter can be identified; (4) which are unmarked, or so marked that it is uncertain for whom the vote is given. The counted and rejected papers, and also the "tendered" papers, counterfoils and marked register (which have not been opened), are, in parliamentary elections, transmitted by the returning officer to the clerk of the crown in chancery in England, or the sheriff-clerk in Scotland, who destroys them at the end of one year, unless otherwise directed by an order of the House of Commons, or of some court having jurisdiction in election petitions. Such petitions either simply dispute the accuracy of the return on the ground of miscounting, or wrongous rejection or wrongous admission of papers, in which case the court examines the counted and rejected papers; or make allegations of corruption, &c. on which it may be necessary to refer to the marked counterfoils and ascertain how bribed voters have voted. Since the elections of 1874 much discontent has been expressed, because judges have rejected papers with trifling (perhaps accidental) marks other than the X upon them, and because elections have been lost through the failure of the officer to stamp the papers. For this purpose the use has been suggested of a perforating instead of an embossing stamp, while a darkground paper with white voting-spaces would make misplaced votes impossible.

The BallotAct introduced several new offences,such as forging of papers or fraudulently defacing or destroying a paper or the official mark; supplying a paper without due authority; fraudulently putting into the box a non-official paper; fraudulently taking a paper out of the station without due authority; destroying, taking, opening or otherwise interfering with a box or packet of papers then in use for election purposes. These offences and attempts to commit them are punishable in the case of officers and clerks with imprisonment for two years, with or without hard labour. In other cases the term of imprisonment is six months.

The ballot was long criticized as leading to universal hypocrisy and deception; and Sydney Smith spoke of "voters, in dominos, going to the poll in sedan-chairs with closely-drawn curtains." The observed effect of a secret ballot has been, however, gradually to exterminate undue influence. The alarm of "the confessional" seems to be unfounded, as a Catholic penitent is not bound to confess his vote, and if he did so, it would be a crime in the confessor to divulge it.

Continental Europe

The ballot is largely employed in European countries. In France, where from 1840 to 1845 the ballot, or scrutin, had been used for deliberative voting in the chamber of deputies, its use in elections to the Corps Legislatif was carefully regulated at the beginning of the Second Empire by the Organic Decree of the 2nd of February 1852. Under this law the voting was superintended by a bureau consisting of the deputy returning-officer (called president of the section), four unpaid assessors selected from the constituency and a secretary. Each voter presents a polling-card, with his designation, date of birth and signature (to secure identity), which he had previously got at the Mairie. This the president mutilates, and the vote is then recorded by a "bulletin," which is not official, but is generally printed with a candidate's name, and given to the voter by an agent outside, the only conditions being that the bulletin shall be "sur papier blanc, sans signes exterieurs, et prepare en dehors de l'assemblee." The total number of votes given (there being only one member in each electoral district) is checked by reference to "la feuille d'appel et inscription des votants," the law still supposing that each voter is publicly called on to vote. If the voter, when challenged, cannot sign his polling-card, he may call a witness to sign for him. The following classes of bulletins are rejected: - "illisibles, blancs, ne contenant pas une designation suffisante; sur lesquels les votants se sont fait connaitre; contenant le nom d'une personne n'ayant pas prete le serment prescrit" (i.e. of a person not nominated). Only the votes pronounced bad by the bureau in presence of representative scrutineers are preserved, in case these should be called for during the "Session pour verification des Pouvoirs." Practically the French ballot did not afford secrecy, for you might observe what bulletin the voter took from the agent, and follow him up the queue into the polling-place; but the determined voter might conceal his vote even from the undue influence of government by scratching out the printed matter and writing his vote. This was always a good vote and scrutiny of good votes was impossible. The ballot is still used in the elections to the National Assembly, but in the Assembly itself only in special cases, as e.g. in the election of a "rapporteur." Under the law of 10th August 1871 the conseils generaux (departmental councils) are elected by ballot.

In Piedmont the ballot formed part of the free constitutional government introduced by Charles Albert in March 1848; it was extended to Italy in 1861. Voting for the Italian chamber of deputies takes place under the law of 10th November 1859, and in public halls (not booths), to which admission is gained by showing a certificate of inscription, issued by the mayor to each qualified voter. A stamped blue official paper, with a memorandum of the law printed on the back (bolletino spiegato), is then issued to the elector; on this he writes the name of a candidate (there being equal electoral colleges) or, in certain exceptional cases, gets a confidential friend to do so, and hands the paper folded-up to the president of the bureau, who puts it in the box (urna), and who afterwards presides at the public "squittinio dei suffragi." Greece is the only European country in which the ball-ballot is used. The voting takes place in the churches, each candidate has a box on which his name is inscribed, one half (white) being also marked "yes," the other half (black) "no." The voter, his citizenship or right to vote in the eparchy being verified, receives one ball or leaden bullet for each candidate from a wooden bowl, which a clerk carries from box to box. The voter stretches his arm down a funnel, and drops the ball into the "yes" or "no" division. The vote is secret, but there is apparently no check on "yes" votes being given for all the candidates, and the ball or bullet is imitable.

The earlier history of the ballot in Hungary is remarkable. Before 1848 secret voting was unknown there. The electoral law of that year left the regulation of parliamentary elections to the county and town councils, very few of which adopted the ballot. The mode of voting was perhaps the most primitive on record. Each candidate had a large box with his name superscribed and painted in a distinguishing colour. On entering the room alone the voter received a rod from 4 to 6 feet in length (to prevent concealment of non-official rods on the voter's person), which he placed in the box through a slit in the lid. By the electoral law of 1874 the ballot in parliamentary elections in Hungary was abolished, but was made obligatory in the elections of town and county councils, the voting being for several persons at once.

In Prussia, Stein, by his Stddteordnung, or municipal corporation act of 1808, introduced the ballot in the election of the municipal assembly (Stadtverordnetenversammlung). Under the German constitution of 1867, and the new constitution of the 1st of January 1871, the elections of the Reichstag were to be conducted by universal suffrage under the ballot in conformity with the electoral law of the 31st of May 1869.


At the first elections in America voting was viva voce; but several of the colonies early provided for the use of written or printed ballots. By 1775 ballots were used in the New England states, in Pennsylvania, Delaware, North Carolina and South Carolina; they were introduced in New Jersey in 1776, and in New York in 1778, so that, at the time the constitution of the United States was adopted, viva voce voting prevailed at public elections only in Maryland, Virginia and Georgia. Of the new states which later entered the Union, only Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri and Arkansas did not have a ballot system when they became states. During the first half of the 19th century, Maryland, Georgia, Arkansas (1846) and Illinois (1848) adopted the ballot. In Missouri ballot-voting was introduced to some localities in 1845, but not until 1863 was it generally adopted in that state. Virginia did not provide for voting by ballot until 1869, and in Kentucky viva voce voting continued until 1819, but while the use of ballots was thus required in voting, and most of the states had laws prescribing the form of ballots and providing for the count of the vote, there was no provision making it the duty of any one to print and distribute the ballots at the polling-places on election day. In the primitive town meetings ballots had been written by the voters, or, if printed, were furnished by the candidates. With the development of elections, the task of preparing and distributing ballots fell to political committees for the various parties. The ballottickets were thus prepared for party-lists of candidates, and it was not easy for any one to vote a mixed ticket, while, as the voter received the ballot within a few feet of the polls, secrecy was almost impossible, and intimidation and bribery became both easy and frequent.

Soon after the adoption of the Australian ballot in Great Britain, it was introduced in Canada, but no serious agitation was begun for a similar system in the United States until 1885. In 1887 bills for the Australian ballot were actively urged in the legislatures of New York and Michigan, although neither became law. A Wisconsin law of that year, regulating elections in cities of over so,000 population, incorporated some features of the Australian system, but the first complete law was enacted by Massachusetts in 1888. This Massachusetts statute provided for the printing and distribution of ballots by the state to contain the names of all candidates arranged alphabetically for each office, the electors to vote by marking the name of each candidate for whom they wished to vote. At the presidential election of 1888 it was freely alleged that large sums of money had been raised on an unprecedented scale for the purchase of votes, and this situation created a feeling of deep alarm which gave a powerful impetus to the movement for ballot reform. In 1889 new ballot laws were enacted in nine states: two states bordering on Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island; four states in the middle-west, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota; two southern states, Tennessee and Missouri; and Montana, in the far west. The Connecticut law, however, marked but little improvement over former conditions, since it provided only for official envelopes in which the unofficial party ballots should be voted. The Indiana law provided for a single or "blanket" ballot, but with the names of candidates arranged in party-groups, and a method of voting for all of the candidates in a party-group by a single mark. Michigan and Missouri also adopted the party-group system. The other states followed the Massachusetts law providing for a blanket ballot with the candidates arranged by offices.

The new ballot system had its first practical demonstration at the Massachusetts election of 1889, and its success led to its rapid adoption in many other states. In 1890 ballot laws were passed in seven states: Vermont, Mississippi, Wyoming and Washington provided for the Massachusetts plan, although Vermont afterwards adopted the system of party-groups, which Maryland used from the first. The New York and New Jersey laws of 1890, however, only provided for official ballots for each party, and allowed ballots obtained outside of the polling-booths to be used. In 1891 seventeen additional states and two territories adopted the Australian ballot system. All of these provided for a blanket ballot; but while the Massachusetts arrangement was adopted in Arkansas, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North and South Dakota, Kentucky, Texas and Oregon, the system of party groups was followed in Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. California had the Massachusetts arrangement of names, but added on the ballot a list of party names, by marking one of which a voter would cast his vote for all of the candidates of that party. Pennsylvania placed all the candidates not in a party-group in alphabetical order.

Iowa adopted the Australian ballot system in 1892; Alabama and Kansas in 1893; Virginia in 1894; Florida in 1895; and Louisiana and Utah in 1896. In 1895, too, New York adopted the blanket ballot in place of separate party ballots, but arranged the names of candidates in party columns. The only state to abandon the blanket ballot after once adopting it was Missouri which in 1897 returned to the system of separate ballots, with no provision for booths where the ballot might be marked in secret. (See the article on "Present State of the Ballot Laws," by Arthur Ludington, in Amer. Pol. Science Rev. for May 1908.) Owing to the large number of officials chosen at one time in American elections, the form and appearance of the ballot used is very different from that in Great Britain. At the quadrennial presidential election in New York state, for example, the officers to be voted for by each elector are thirty-six presidential electors, one congressman, state-governor, lieutenant-governor and five other state officers, a member for each house of the state legislature, several judges, a sheriff, county-clerk and other county officers. The column with the list of the candidates of each party for all of these offices is 2 to 3 ft. in length; and as there are often eight to ten party-tickets in the field, the ballot-paper is usually from 18 to 20 in. in width. Each voter receives one of these "blanket" ballots on entering the polling-place, and retires to a booth to mark either a party column or the individual candidates in different columns for whom he wishes to vote. Where, as in Massachusetts, the names of candidates are arranged by offices instead of in party-lists, every voter must mark the name of each individual candidate for whom he wishes to vote. Connecticut, New Jersey, Missouri, North and South Carolina, Georgia and New Mexico use the system ofseparate party ballots. (See also VOTING, VOTING MACHINES, ELECTION, REPRESENTATION.)

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