At the first elections in America voting was viva voce; but several of the colonies early provided for the use of written or printed ballots. By 1775 ballots were used in the New England states, in Pennsylvania, Delaware, North Carolina and South Carolina; they were introduced in New Jersey in 1776, and in New York in 1778, so that, at the time the constitution of the United States was adopted, viva voce voting prevailed at public elections only in Maryland, Virginia and Georgia. Of the new states which later entered the Union, only Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri and Arkansas did not have a ballot system when they became states. During the first half of the 19th century, Maryland, Georgia, Arkansas (1846) and Illinois (1848) adopted the ballot. In Missouri ballot-voting was introduced to some localities in 1845, but not until 1863 was it generally adopted in that state. Virginia did not provide for voting by ballot until 1869, and in Kentucky viva voce voting continued until 1819, but while the use of ballots was thus required in voting, and most of the states had laws prescribing the form of ballots and providing for the count of the vote, there was no provision making it the duty of any one to print and distribute the ballots at the polling-places on election day.

In the primitive town meetings ballots had been written by the voters, or, if printed, were furnished by the candidates. With the development of elections, the task of preparing and distributing ballots fell to political committees for the various parties. The ballot-tickets were thus prepared for party-lists of candidates, and it was not easy for any one to vote a mixed ticket, while, as the voter received the ballot within a few feet of the polls, secrecy was almost impossible, and intimidation and bribery became both easy and frequent.

Soon after the adoption of the Australian ballot in Great Britain, it was introduced in Canada, but no serious agitation was begun for a similar system in the United States until 1885. In 1887 bills for the Australian ballot were actively urged in the legislatures of New York and Michigan, although neither became law. A Wisconsin law of that year, regulating elections in cities of over 50,000 population, incorporated some features of the Australian system, but the first complete law was enacted by Massachusetts in 1888. This Massachusetts statute provided for the printing and distribution of ballots by the state to contain the names of all candidates arranged alphabetically for each office, the electors to vote by marking the name of each candidate for whom they wished to vote. At the presidential election of 1888 it was freely alleged that large sums of money had been raised on an unprecedented scale for the purchase of votes, and this situation created a feeling of deep alarm which gave a powerful impetus to the movement for ballot reform.

In 1889 new ballot laws were enacted in nine states: two states bordering on Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island; four states in the middle-west, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota; two southern states, Tennessee and Missouri; and Montana, in the far west. The Connecticut law, however, marked but little improvement over former conditions, since it provided only for official envelopes in which the unofficial party ballots should be voted. The Indiana law provided for a single or "blanket" ballot, but with the names of candidates arranged in party-groups, and a method of voting for all of the candidates in a party-group by a single mark. Michigan and Missouri also adopted the party-group system. The other states followed the Massachusetts law providing for a blanket ballot with the candidates arranged by offices.

The new ballot system had its first practical demonstration at the Massachusetts election of 1889, and its success led to its rapid adoption in many other states. In 1890 ballot laws were passed in seven states: Vermont, Mississippi, Wyoming and Washington provided for the Massachusetts plan, although Vermont afterwards adopted the system of party-groups, which Maryland used from the first. The New York and New Jersey laws of 1890, however, only provided for official ballots for each party, and allowed ballots obtained outside of the polling-booths to be used. In 1891 seventeen additional states and two territories adopted the Australian ballot system. All of these provided for a blanket ballot; but while the Massachusetts arrangement was adopted in Arkansas, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North and South Dakota, Kentucky, Texas and Oregon, the system of party groups was followed in Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. California had the Massachusetts arrangement of names, but added on the ballot a list of party names, by marking one of which a voter would cast his vote for all of the candidates of that party.

Pennsylvania placed all the candidates not in a party-group in alphabetical order.

Iowa adopted the Australian ballot system in 1892; Alabama and Kansas in 1893; Virginia in 1894; Florida in 1895; and Louisiana and Utah in 1896. In 1895, too, New York adopted the blanket ballot in place of separate party ballots, but arranged the names of candidates in party columns. The only state to abandon the blanket ballot after once adopting it was Missouri which in 1897 returned to the system of separate ballots, with no provision for booths where the ballot might be marked in secret. (See the article, "Present Status of the Ballot Laws," by Arthur Ludington in Amer. Pol. Science Rev. for May 1909.)

Owing to the large number of officials chosen at one time in American elections, the form and appearance of the ballot used is very different from that in Great Britain. At the quadrennial presidential election in New York state, for example, the officers to be voted for by each elector are thirty-six presidential electors, one congressman, state-governor, lieutenant-governor and five other state officers, a member for each house of the state legislature, several judges, a sheriff, county-clerk and other county officers. The column with the list of the candidates of each party for all of these offices is 2 to 3 ft. in length; and as there are often eight to ten party-tickets in the field, the ballot-paper is usually from 18 to 20 in. in width. Each voter receives one of these "blanket" ballots on entering the polling-place, and retires to a booth to mark either a party column or the individual candidates in different columns for whom he wishes to vote. Where, as in Massachusetts, the names of candidates are arranged by offices instead of in party-lists, every voter must mark the name of each individual candidate for whom he wishes to vote.

Connecticut, New Jersey, Missouri, North and South Carolina, Georgia and New Mexico use the system of separate party ballots. (See also Voting, Voting Machines, Election, Representation.)

[1] For a description of Grote's card-frame, in which the card was punctured through a hole, and was thus never in the voter's hands, see Spectator, 25th February 1837.