Ballot (from Ital. ballotta, dim. of balla, a ball), the modern method of secret-voting employed in political, legislative and judicial assemblies, and also in the proceedings of private clubs and corporations. The name comes from the use of a little ball dropped according to choice into the right receptacle; but nowadays it is used for any system of secret-voting, even though no such ball is employed. In ancient Athens, the dicasts, in giving their verdict, generally used balls of stone (psephi) or of metal (sponduli). Those pierced in the centre, or black in colour, signified condemnation; those unpierced, or white, signified acquittal. The boxes were variously arranged; but generally a brass box received both classes of votes, and a wooden box received the unused balls. In the assembly, cases of privilegia, such as ostracism, the naturalization of foreigners or the release of state-debtors, were decided by secret-voting. The petalism, or voting by words on olive-leaves, practised at Syracuse, may also be mentioned. At Rome the ballot was introduced to the comitia by the Leges Tabellariae, of which the Lex Gabiana (139 B.C.) relates to the election of magistrates, the Lex Cassia (137 B.C.) to judicia populi, and the Lex Papiria (131 B.C.) to the enactment and repeal of laws.
The wooden tabellae, placed in the cista or wicker box, were marked U. R. (uti rogas) and A. (antiquo) in the case of a proposed law; L. (libero) and D. (damno) in the case of a public trial; in the case of an election, puncta were made opposite the names or initials of the candidates. Tabellae were also used by the Roman judices, who expressed their verdict or judgment by the letters A. (absolvo), C. (condemno), and N. L. (non liquet). In modern times voting by ballot is usually by some form of writing, but the use of the ball still persists (especially in clubs), and a "black ball" is the regular term for a hostile vote.
In Great Britain the ballot was suggested for use in parliament by a political tract of the time of Charles II. It was actually used by the Scots parliament of 1662 in proceeding on the Billeting Act, a measure proposed by Middleton to secure the ostracism of Lauderdale and other political opponents who were by secret-vote declared incapable of public office. The plan followed was this: each member of parliament wrote, in a disguised hand, on a piece of paper, the names of twelve suspected persons; the billets were put in a bag held by the registrar; the bag was then sealed, and was afterwards opened and its contents ascertained in the exchequer chamber, where the billets were immediately burned and the names of the ostracised concealed on oath. The Billeting Act was repudiated by the king, and the ballot was not again heard of till 1705, when Fletcher of Saltoun, in his measure for a provisional government of Scotland by annual parliaments in the event of Queen Anne's death, proposed secret-voting to protect members from court influence.
The gradual emancipation of the British parliament from the power of the crown, and the adoption of a strictly representative system of election, not only destroyed whatever reason may once have existed for the ballot in deliberative voting, but rendered it essential that such voting should be open. It was in the agitations for parliamentary reform at the beginning of the 19th century that the demand for the ballot in parliamentary elections was first seriously made. The Benthamites advocated the system in 1817. At the so-called Peterloo Massacre (1819) several banners were inscribed with the ballot. O'Connell introduced a bill on the subject in 1830; and the original draft of Lord John Russell's Reform Bill, probably on the suggestion of Lords Durham and Duncannon, provided for its introduction. Later on the historian Grote became its chief supporter in the House of Commons; and from 1833 to 1839, in spite of the ridicule cast by Sydney Smith on the "mouse-trap," and on Grote's "dagger-box, in which you stab the card of your favourite candidate with a dagger," the minority for the ballot increased from 106 to 217. In 1838 the ballot was the fourth point of the People's Charter. In the same year the abolition of the land qualification introduced rich commercial candidates to the constituencies.
Lord Melbourne's cabinet declared the question open. The cause, upheld by Macaulay, Ward, Hume (in his resolutions, 1848) and Berkeley, was strengthened by the report of Lord Hartington's Select Committee (15th March 1870), to the effect that corruption, treating and intimidation by priests and landlords took place to a large extent at both parliamentary and municipal elections in England and Ireland; and that the ballot, if adopted, would probably not only promote tranquillity at elections, but protect voters from undue influence, and introduce greater freedom and purity in voting, provided secrecy was made inviolable except in cases where a voter was found guilty of bribery, or where an invalid vote had been given.
Meanwhile in Australia the ballot had been introduced by the Constitution Act of South Australia (1856), and in other colonies at the same date. In South Australia (Electoral Act of 1858) the returning-officer put his initials on the voting-card, which the voter was directed, under pain of nullity, to fold so that the officer might not see the vote which was indicated by a cross. In Victoria, under the Electoral Act of 1865, the officer added to his initials a number corresponding to the voter's number on the register. In Tasmania the chief peculiarity was that (as in South Australia) the card was not put directly by the voter into the box, but handed to the officer, who put it there (this being thought a security against double-voting or voting with a non-official card, and also against the voter carrying away his card). In 1869, at Manchester and Stafford in England, test-ballots were taken on the Australian system as practised in Victoria - the voting-card containing the names of all the candidates, printed in different colours (for the benefit of illiterate voters), and the voter being directed to score out the names of those he did not support, and then to place the card (covered by an official envelope) in the box.