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A ballot is a device (originally a small ball) used to record choices made by voters. In the simplest elections, a ballot may be a simple piece of paper on which each voter writes in the name of a candidate.


In ancient Greece, citizens used pieces of broken pottery to scratch in the name of the candidate in the procedures of ostracism . This was done because while parchment was expensive and had to be imported from Egypt, 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 BC, and the first use of paper ballots in North America was in 1629 within the Massachusetts Bay Colony to select a pastor for the Salem Church.[1]

In the United States, initially paper ballots were pieces of paper marked and supplied by voters. Later on, political parties and candidates provided preprinted ballots for voters to cast.

The secret ballot was first introduced in Australia in the 1850s.

Long vs. short ballot

Before the Civil War, some believed democracy was enhanced by increasing 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 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. Reformers attacked the long ballot during the Progressive Era (circa 1893–1917). In the United States today, the term ballot reform sometimes includes efforts to reduce the number of elected offices.


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 Palm Beach County, Florida in the U.S. presidential election, 2000 led to large confusion. Political scientist, Walter Mebane estimates it costs Gore approximately 3,000 votes, in an election he lost by 537 votes.


  • In a jurisdiction using a paper system, voters choose by marking a ballot. In most jurisdictions the ballots are pre-printed with names of candidates and the text of the referenda.
  • In a jurisdiction using an optical scan voting system, voters choose by filling an oval or by completing an arrow on the printed ballot next to their chosen candidate or referendum position. Optical scan technology has also been used by many standardized tests. Tabulating machines count the ballots either after the polls close or as the voters feed the ballots into the machine, in which case the results are not known until after the polls close. Officials often will manually count any ballots that cannot be read or with a write-in candidate and may recount the ballots in the event of a dispute.
  • In a jurisdiction using a punch card system, voters choose by removing or "punching out" a perforated chad from the ballot next each choice. The ballot may be pre-printed with candidates and referenda, or may be a generic ballot placed under a printed list of candidates and referenda. A tabulating machines counts ballots after the polls closed. Officials may manually count the ballots 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, often called a "voting machine", voters choose by pulling a lever next to their choice. There is a printed list of candidates, parties and referenda next to the levers indicating which lever is assigned to which choice. When the voter pulls a lever, it turns a connected gear in the machine, which turns a counter wheel. Each counter wheel shows a number, which is the number of votes cast using that lever. After the polls close, election officials check the wheels' positions and record the totals. No physical ballot is used in this system, except when the voter chooses to write-in a candidate. Other systems are replacing mechanical voting systems because they are inaccessible to disabled voters, do not have a physical ballot, are getting old, and other reasons.
  • In a jurisdiction using an electronic direct record voting system (DRE), voters choose by pushing a button next to a printed list of candidates and referenda, or by touching the candidate or referenda box on a touchscreen interface. As the voter makes a selection, the DRE creates an electronic ballot stored by in the memory components of the system. After the polls close, the system counts the votes and reports the totals to the election officials. Many DREs include a communication device to transmit vote totals to a central tabulator.

See also