Ballot (Fr. a little ball), a term derived from the practice of voting secretly by depositing a ball in a box, as is still done in elections at clubs. The name has been extended to all systems of voting which aim at secrecy, as well as to the balls, tickets, or printed forms used in them.
The ancient Athenians voted secretly with oyster-shells, or in judicial proceedings with beans or balls; the ancient Romans with stamped clay tablets (tabellas). Athenian officials were, however, generally selected by show of hands or (for the less important offices) by lot. In the public assembly the ballot was only used in questions of a distinctly personal kind, e.g. admission to citizenship.
Vote by ballot on bills or resolutions has occasionally been adopted in legislatures. It was used (for instance) in the Venetian Senate, and an attempt was made to introduce it in the English Parliament in 1710; but it is inconsistent with the responsibility of representatives to their constituents. By far its most important use is in the election of representatives in the legislature and public functionaries. In England it was suggested during the 18th century; a bill was introduced into Parliament by O'Connell in 1830; it was in the first draft of the Reform Bill of 1832, and a resolution in its favour was moved annually (at first by the historian George Grote) for many years in the House of Commons, and in 1851 was carried against the Government, but without result. It was for many years a leading feature in the Radical programme, and was one of the six points of Chartism (q.v.). In 1870 a select committee of the House of Commons reported in its favour, and it was used in the School Board elections of that year; and in 1872 Mr. W. E. Forster's Ballot Act was passed. The system then introduced was at first temporary and experimental, but has succeeded admirably, and may now be regarded as permanent.
In some of the English colonies in America the ballot had existed from the first, and it is now adopted throughout the United States for all Federal and State elections except, for the latter, in Kentucky (1888); as also in the English colonies, and nearly all Continental countries, Sweden and Hungary being exceptions; in the latter it has been abolished for Parliamentary elections, but still remains in municipal. In Italy the voter must write the name of the candidate he supports, in the polling place, on a paper which he then folds and puts in the box. But the systems in use may be reduced to two types - the American or ticket system, and the English system.
In the former each party issues printed tickets. or lists of all its candidates (often very long, as elections for all Federal and State offices usually take place at the same time in the United States), and (where the election is to more than one office) "pasters," or adhesive slips, each printed with the name of a candidate. Voters who object to any candidate on the ticket issued by their own party can thus substitute another name, or they may simply erase that of the candidate they dislike. These tickets and pasters are usually obtained from a party agent outside the polling place, and deposited in the ballot box. This plan is obviously fatal to secrecy, and the system facilitates fraud - two or more tickets (printed on thin paper for the purpose) being sometimes folded and deposited together - while the presiding officials have been known to "stuff" the boxes with tickets of the party they favoured, before the proceedings began. (In California glass ballot boxes have been. adopted to check this.) The system therefore is gradually giving way in the United States to the English system - called, out of consideration for the feelings of the Irish voter, the "Australian system." In this (as established by Mr. Forster's Act throughout the United Kingdom) the voter, after he has entered the polling place, receives a numbered ticket, containing the names of all the candidates. He makes a cross opposite the names of those he supports, and then folds the paper and deposits it. Any other mark renders the paper void. A note is taken of the number, in case of a scrutiny on petition, but except when this is resorted to (which it very rarely is) secrecy is absolutely assured. The papers are shuffled together before being counted, and after the count they are sealed up in the presence of representatives of both parties and transmitted to a Chancery official, who destroys them after one year. In the hurried count of some thousands of papers during the two or three hours between the close of the poll and the declaration no individual voter's paper can possibly be traced. Special provision is, of course, made both in England and America for blind and illiterate voters.
The introduction of the ballot in political elections has often been condemned (by J. S. Mill for instance) on the ground that "a vote is a public trust." Experience, however, shows that many voters are unable to resist the temptations offered them to vote against their convictions. Since its introduction in England bribery and intimidation have very greatly decreased.