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A ballot is a device used to cast votes in an election and may be found as a piece of paper or a small ball used in secret voting.[1] It was originally a small ball (see blackballing) used to record decisions made by voters in Italy around the 16th century.[2]

Each voter uses one ballot, and ballots are not shared. In the simplest elections, a ballot may be a simple scrap of paper on which each voter writes in the name of a candidate, but governmental elections use pre-printed ballots to protect the secrecy of the votes. The voter casts their ballot in a box at a polling station.

In British English, this is usually called a "ballot paper".[3] The word ballot is used for an election process within an organization (such as a trade union "holding a ballot" of its members).


The word ballot comes from Italian ballotta, meaning a "small ball used in voting" or a "secret vote taken by ballots" in Venice, Italy.[4]


In ancient Greece, citizens used pieces of broken pottery to scratch in the name of the candidate in the procedures of ostracism.

The first use of paper ballots to conduct an election appears to have been in Rome in 139 BC, following the introduction of the lex Gabinia tabellaria.

In ancient India, around 920 AD, in Tamil Nadu, palm leaves were used for village assembly elections. The palm leaves with candidate names were put inside a mud pot for counting. This was called Kudavolai system.[5][6][7]

The first use of paper ballots in America was in 1629 within the Massachusetts Bay Colony to select a pastor for the Salem Church.[8] Paper ballots were pieces of paper marked and supplied by voters.

Before the introduction of the secret ballot, American political parties distributed ballots listing their own candidates for party supporters to deposit in ballot boxes.

Types of voting systems

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 of preference, while ballots for first-past-the-post systems only allow voters to select one candidate for each position. In party-list systems, lists may be open or closed.


Ballot design can aid or inhibit clarity in an election. Poor designs lead to confusion and potentially chaos if large numbers of voters spoil or mismark a ballot. The "butterfly ballot" used in the Palm Beach County, Florida 2000 U.S. presidential election (a ballot paper that has names down both sides, with a single column of punch holes in the center, which has been likened to a maze[9][10]) led to widespread allegations of mismarked ballots.[11] The ballot was designed to have a larger print, making it easier for the elderly voters of Palm Beach to read, but instead, it led to the names of candidates being alternately offset, with lines on both sides of each punch hole, creating confusion.[12]


Further information: Vote counting system

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Ballot being dropped into a ballot box during the Finnish presidential election
Ballot being dropped into a ballot box during the Finnish presidential election

See also


  1. ^ "Ballot". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 2012-11-07.
  2. ^ "Ballot | Origin and meaning of ballot by Online Etymology Dictionary".
  3. ^ "Ballot". Merriam-Webster Learner’s Dictionary. Retrieved 2012-11-07.[permanent dead link]
  4. ^ "Ballot". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 2012-11-07.
  5. ^ "Panchayat Raj, Policy notes 2011-2012" (PDF). Rural development & panchayat raj department, TN Government, India. Retrieved 3 November 2011.
  6. ^ "Heritage in a park". The Hindu. Chennai, India. 2 April 2010. Archived from the original on 8 April 2010.
  7. ^ "Handbook on Kongu archaeological treasures". The Hindu. Coimbatore, India. 27 June 2005. Archived from the original on 23 May 2013.
  8. ^ Jones, Douglas W.. A Brief Illustrated History of Voting. University of Iowa Department of Computer Science.
  9. ^ Associated Press (2003-07-14). "State: Ballot display revives chads, chaos of bungled election". Saint Petersburg Times Online Tampa Bay. Retrieved 2014-10-26.
  10. ^ "Statement of Commissioner Victoria Wilson". Voting Irregularities in Florida During the 2000 Presidential Election, Archived from the original on July 21, 2011. Retrieved 2014-10-26.
  11. ^ Dershowitz, Supreme Injustice: How the High Court Hijacked Election 2000, pp. 22–28. ISBN 9780195148275
  12. ^ Cheng, Alicia (2020). This is What Democracy Looked Like. New York: Princeton Architectural Press. p. 7. ISBN 9781616898878.
  13. ^ "Understanding the Japanese Election System". Retrieved 2022-06-06.

Further reading