ballot, means of voting for candidates for office. The choice may be indicated on or by the ballot forms themselves—e.g., colored balls (hence the term ballot, which is derived from the Italian ballotta, meaning "little ball"), printed tickets, or mechanical or electronic devices—or by the depositories into which the ballots are put.
The ballot was used in Athens in the 5th cent. B.C. by the popular courts and, on the question of ostracism, by the people as a whole; in India before 300 B.C.; and in Rome by the popular assemblies and occasionally by the senate. Ballots were not used during the Middle Ages, but reappeared in the Italian communes and in elections to the papacy during the 13th cent. In the 16th and 17th cent. the ballot appeared in English borough and university elections.
The General Court of Massachusetts elected governors by ballot after 1634; corn and beans were occasionally used as ballots. Early American ballots were known as "papers": the name ballot does not occur in America before 1676. The British colonies in America were the first to elect representatives by secret ballot, and its use was made obligatory in all but one of the state constitutions adopted in the United States between 1776 and 1780. In the 19th cent. the use of the ballot became widespread in local and national elections in Europe.
Groups wishing to intimidate popular governance have opposed the ballot. The effort to reform election abuses led to the widespread use of the Australian ballot, which was adopted in Victoria in 1857, in Great Britain in 1872, and grew increasingly popular in the United States after 1888. In the latter country it gradually replaced earlier methods of voting such as the lengthy "tickets" distributed by political parties. In the Australian system all candidates' names are printed on a single ballot and placed in the polling places at public expense, and the printing, distribution, and marking of the ballot are protected by law, thus assuring a secret vote.
The Australian ballot is now used in many European countries and in almost all sections of the United States. Separate ballots are frequently distributed for referendums and constitutional propositions. Mechanical, computerized, electronic, or optically scannable means of voting (see voting machine) are now used to record about 90% of all votes in the United States. Estonia used an Internet website as alternative means of voting for local candidates in 2005 and national candidates in 2007. The institution of official ballots and the use of voting machines have helped bring political parties under the scope of the law.
Some critics have denounced the excessive length of the United States ballots, claiming that voters are thus too pressed for time in their decisions. The use of the presidential short ballot, listing only the candidates, not the electors pledged to them, has not much alleviated this problem.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.