Secret ballot

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The secret ballot is a voting method in which a voter's choices are confidential. The most basic form may be blank pieces of paper, upon which each voter writes only their choice. Without revealing their vote to anyone, the voters place the ballots into a sealed box, which is emptied later for counting.

One of the most common forms in the modern world provides for pre-printed ballot papers with the name of the candidates or questions and respective checkboxes. Provisions are made at the polling place for the voter to record their preferences in secret. The ballots are specifically designed to eliminate bias and to prevent anyone from linking voter to ballot. This system is also known as the Australian ballot, because it originated in Australia during the 1850s. In the United States, it is also known as the Massachusetts ballot since Massachusetts was the first U.S. state to use the secret ballot.

Today the practice of casting secret ballots is so commonplace that most voters would not consider that any other method might be used, yet in the 19th century it was highly controversial, and it is becoming controversial again. The key aim of the secret ballot is to ensure the voter records a sincere choice by forestalling attempts to influence the voter by intimidation or bribery, but on the other hand, it is difficult to verify the integrity of the count if ballots cannot be traced to a particular voter.


In Ancient Greece, secret ballots were used in several occasions, like ostracism and also to remain hidden from people seeking favors. In Ancient Rome, Laws regulating elections are collectively known as w:Tabellariae Leges, the first of which was introduced in 139 BC (w:gabinia lex)[1]. Today the practice of casting secret ballots is so commonplace that most voters would not consider that any other method might be used, yet in the 19th century it was highly controversial.


Article 31 of the French Constitution of 1795 states that All elections are to be held by secret ballot.

United Kingdom

The demand for a secret ballot was one of the six points of Chartism. In the words of the petition that was published in 1838: "The suffrage, to be exempt from the corruption of the wealthy and the violence of the powerful, must be secret."[2] Parliament refused to even consider the Chartist demands but the secret ballot was eventually introduced in the Ballot Act 1872.


Chartist ideas influenced the miners of Eureka Stockade in 1854 in Victoria where they adopted all of Chartism's six points including the secret ballot.

Secret balloting appears to have been first implemented in the former Australian colony — now a state — of Tasmania on February 7 1856.[3]

United States

In the United States the practice became known as the "Australian ballot", defined as having four parts:[4]

  1. an official ballot being printed at public expense,
  2. on which the names of the nominated candidates of all parties and all proposals appear,
  3. being distributed only at the polling place and
  4. being marked in secret.

In the United States, most states had moved to secret ballots soon after the presidential election of 1884. The last state to retire the practice of the oral ballot was Kentucky which did so in 1891.

Elections in the United States are now almost always held by secret ballot.[5] The Constitution for the State of West Virginia still allows voters to cast "open ballots"[6]. The Populists, a short-lived American political party during 1870s through 1890s, listed the Australian ballot as one of their party platforms in the Ocala Demands.

Secrecy vs. reliability

The United Kingdom's secret ballot arrangements are sometimes criticised because it is possible to link a ballot paper to the voter that cast it. Each ballot paper is individually numbered and each elector has a number. When an elector is given a ballot paper, their number is noted down on the counterfoil of the ballot paper (which also carries the ballot paper number). This means, of course, that the ballot is not secret at all.

This measure is thought to be justified as a security arrangement so that if there was an allegation of fraud, false ballot papers could be identified. The process of matching ballot papers to voters is permissible only if an Elections Court requires it, and this is an extremely unlikely occurrence. The legal authority for this system is set out in the Parliamentary Elections Rules in Schedule 1 of the Representation of the People Act 1983.[7]

In the United States, sometimes the number on the ballot is printed on a perforated stub which is torn off and placed on a ring (like a shower curtain ring) before the ballot is cast into the ballot box. The stubs prove an elector has voted and ensure he can only vote once, but the ballots themselves are anonymous. At the end of voting day, the number of ballots inside the box must match the number of stubs on the ring, certifying that every ballot was cast by a registered elector, and that none of them were lost or fabricated.

Chronology of introduction


  1. Tabellariae Leges. William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.: A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.
  3. Terry Newman, Tasmania and the Secret Ballot (2003), 49(1) Aust J Pol & Hist 93
  4. See page 59 of: (1967) Webster's Seventh New Colligiate Dictionary. Springfield, Massachusetts: G&C Merriam Company. 
  5. The Political party nominating caucuses in some U.S. states (most significantly the leadoff Presidential nominating state of Iowa) still require an open casting of ballots.
  6. See W. Va. Const. Art. IV, §2, "In all elections by the people, the mode of voting shall be by ballot; but the voter shall be left free to vote by either open, sealed or secret ballot, as he may elect.".
  7. Factsheet: Ballot secrecy, Electoral Commission of the United Kingdom

See also

External links