Originally a small ball - see blackball - used to record choices made by voters, a ballot has come to mean any device (often a piece of paper) that allows individuals voters to select their preferences and so contribute to the outcome of an election. A ballot is a more formal method of registering voter preference than a voice vote, a show of hands, or similar. The advantages of the ballot over these other means include safety (through secrecy) and certainty (through easier counting and recountability). A simple scrap of paper on which each voter writes in the name of a candidate or a position to be decided qualifies as a ballot, and all that is necessary for many uses. Most modern governmental elections feature pre-printed ballots designed to be run through automated vote counting machines, though a session on a computer can also qualify as a ballot.
The drawing of lots was often used in ancient times to decide many group actions. One of the most famous of these is related in the book of Jonah, where sailors in peril drew lots to determine who had caused a storm at sea. In effect, Jonah was selected among all possible candidates by chance, a method thought in ancient times to be most easily influenced by divine agency. Most voting in modern times, on the other hand, aims to select candidates, priorities, and actions according to some sort of understanding of agent preference. It is now widely recognized that no form of voting can determine truth, though questions of divine agency sometimes remain in concepts like mandate. Voting can be seen, then, primarily as a method of avoiding conflict while maintaining some group coherence.
In Ancient Greece citizens used bits of pottery to scratch in the name of the candidate in the procedures of ostracism. Parchment, at that time, was expensive and had to be imported from Egypt, while broken pottery was abundant and virtually free.
The first use of paper ballots to conduct an election appears to have been in Rome in 139 BCE, and the first use of paper ballots in the United States was in 1629 to select a pastor for the Salem Church.
In the United States, pieces of paper marked and supplied by voters constituted the earliest ballots. Later on, political parties and candidates provided preprinted ballots for voters to cast. In much of the 19th century, preprinted ballots and hand-made ballots were all placed into ballot boxes, without much regulation.
The regulation of the size, printing, and origin of ballots became an increasing interest of politicians and government functionaries as the 19th and 20th centuries progressed. In effect, in virtually all jurisdictions, the printing of ballots became an industry monopolized by the state in the 20th century, and now most Americans consider any other kind of ballot unthinkable.
Recently, however, the rise of computer voting at polling stations, has challenged many citizens' ideas of what a ballot can look like, and how it can function. Further, the widespread popularity of mail-in ballots (with some districts offering no other manner of voting), has solidified the idea of uniformity in the look and use of a ballot as a necessary feature of what is, in essence, a form.
Types of choices
Depending on the type of voting system used in the election, different ballots may be used. Ranked ballots allow voters to rank candidates in order, while ballots for first-past-the-post systems only allow voters to select one candidate. In party-list systems, lists may be open or closed.
Before the Civil War, American thought became dominated by the idea that democracy was enhanced by multiplying the number of elective offices to include such comparatively minor posts as the state-level secretary of state, county surveyor, register of deeds, county coroner, and city clerk. A larger number of elected offices necessarily required longer ballots, and at times the long ballot undoubtedly resulted in confusion and blind voting, though the seriousness of either problem can be disputed. A new generation of reformers attacked the long ballot during the so-called Progressive Era (circa 1893-1917). In the United States today, the term ballot reform sometimes refers to efforts to reduce the number of elected offices.
Ballot design can aid or inhibit clarity in an election. A poor design leads to confusion and potentially chaos if large numbers of voters spoil or mismark a ballot.
The so-called butterfly ballot used in Florida in the U.S. presidential election, 2000 led to widespread allegations of mismarked ballots.
The physical design of a paper ballot can be done in a number of ways. The order of placement of candidates and positions can affect how voters perceive these candidates. The listing of information about candidates and positions can range from nonexistent through brief to elaborate. Each of these can postively and negatively skew voter appraisal, sometimes in unexpected ways. The design of ballots, and especially the writing of ballot tites, has become a key element in the art and science of influence, whether this is referred to as the art of publicity or of propaganda.
Issues of who controls, or regulates, these contentious elements of ballots waxes and wanes in a democracy, sometimes becoming a major concern, as represented in citizen debate and major media coverage.
- In a jurisdiction using a paper system, a voter indicates his or her voter intent by personally marking a ballot that is pre-printed with the candidates and referenda. The ballot is manually counted, using proper vote counting system etiquette, by election officials after the polls have closed and may be recounted in the event of a dispute.
- In a jurisdiction using an optical scan system, a voter indicates his or her choice(s) by personally filling an oval or completing an arrow on the ballot next to the printed candidates and referenda. The ballot is counted by a tabulating machine after the polls have closed and may be manually counted in the event of a dispute.
- In a jurisdiction using a punch card system, a voter indicates his or her voter intent by removing a perforated chad from the ballot next to his or her choice(s). The ballot can be pre-printed with the candidates and referenda or a generic ballot placed under a printed list of candidates and referenda. The ballot is counted by a tabulating machine after the polls have closed and may be manually counted in the event of a dispute. Punch card voting systems are being replaced by other voting systems because of a high rate of inaccuracy related to the incomplete removal of the perforated chad and the inaccessibility to voters with disabilities.
- In a jurisdiction using a mechanical voting system, a voter indicates his or her choice(s) by pulling down a lever next to a printed list of candidates and referenda. When the lever is pulled, it causes a connected gear in the machine to turn a counter wheel. The position of each counter wheel after the polls have closed will indicate the number of votes cast on each lever. The lever total is transcribed by the election official to the corresponding choice(s) determined at the election. No ballot is used in this system. Mechanical voting systems are being replaced by other voting systems because they are inaccessible to voters with disabilities, the exclusion of a ballot, and other reasons.
- In a jurisdiction using an electronic direct record voting system (DRE), a voter indicates his or her choice(s) by pushing a button next to a printed list of candidates and referenda or touching the candidate or referenda box on a touchscreen interface. Once a selection is made the DRE creates an electronic ballot stored by in the memory components of the system. After the polls have closed, the system counts the votes cast and reports the totals to the election official. Many DREs include a communication device to transmit vote totals to a central tabulator.
The recording of the results of an election, including the activity of "counting the ballots", is covered in separate articles: vote counting, paper trail, for example. Who (candidates) and what (citizen initiatives and referenda) qualifies to appear on ballots, are covered in articles such as ballot access and initiative requirements.
Ballotpedia aims to cover all aspects relating to citizen ballots in a modern democracy, so in a sense all articles on this site will have some relevance to this, the central article.