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What is a Ballot?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A ballot is a form which is used to cast votes in an election, classically in a polling place, a central location set up for the purpose of voting. The ballot includes a list of candidates and measures being voted on, along with spaces for voters to indicate their preferences. In some regions of the world, communities have converted their balloting systems from physical paper ballots to electronic ones, for the purpose of streamlining the voting process. This change has been heavily criticized by people who are concerned about the security of electronic voting.

The word comes from Italian ballotta, a small stone used to cast a vote. Humans have been voting for thousands of years, often with the use of sticks, stones, shells, or pieces of pottery. In public elections, eligible voters would literally cast their vote by tossing a symbol into the pile for a candidate or measure that the voter supported. Over time, the public voting method evolved into a secret ballot, in which voters marked their choices on confidential forms and put their forms into a collection box for counting.

There are a number of different styles of ballot. In some countries, voters from different parties are given different ballots, for example, and many nations have a ranked choice voting system which allows voters to number the candidates by preference, rather than just voting for one. Some ballots are marked with pens, while others must be punched with the use of a special stylus. Absentee ballots are ballots which are mailed to people who cannot visit polling places in person.

Ballot design has been a contentious issue historically because it is easy to confuse voters with subtle changes in ballot design. Critics of the butterfly ballot used in Florida during the 2000 election point out that the ballot led people to mark the wrong candidates because it had a confusing design. In urban areas, the production of multilingual ballots is another major issue, because voting officials want to ensure that everyone understands the ballot.

Voters should be aware of their voting rights, and they should not be afraid to defend them. In many nations, people have the right to vote in private, commonly in a protected booth which prevents other voters from looking over the voter's shoulder. Impaired voters who need assistance can also request it from staff at a polling place; a blind voter, for example, can ask someone to mark his or her ballot. Voters should also ask for ballot receipts so that they can be assured that their votes are counted.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By SarahSon — On Apr 12, 2012

When I went to my first caucus I was surprised at the way the voting was handled. When you came in everybody was handed a blank piece of paper.

When everybody was done talking about their candidate, you wrote down the person you were voting for on the paper.

They asked us not to fold them, but to turn them over as we passed them to the end of the row. They said this made the counting go much faster if they didn't have to unfold each piece of paper.

I am not sure if I was expecting electronic voting or not, but I just thought the voting method would be a little bit more sophisticated than that for a political caucus.

There weren't any ballot issues in our area, but the next day there was one area of our state that had problems. They needed to recount the ballots, and couldn't find all of them.

By sunshined — On Apr 12, 2012

I know in some instances, you can look at a sample ballot ahead of time online. A few years ago we had several local judges who were being voted on.

This was very controversial, and they kept telling people on the news where they could go look at a sample ballot ahead of time.

I think this is a good idea as it really gives you the opportunity to do some research and make an informed decision when you vote.

There have been many times when I went to vote and didn't have any idea who some of the people on the ballot were.

I just voted for those I was familiar with, but it would have been nice to know what was going to be on there ahead of time.

By John57 — On Apr 11, 2012

@golf07 - I have never asked for a ballot receipt, but I am sure the people who are working the voting place should be able to accommodate you.

Once when I was going to be on vacation during the election, I requested an absentee ballot for voting. Ever since then, I have found it more convenient to vote this way.

This gives me a chance to really look over the ballot information and not feel like I am rushed if there are other people waiting in line behind me.

It also gives me a chance to do some research on other issues that are on the ballot that I might not be familiar with ahead of time.

There are many times where I have voted a straight party ticket instead of filling in each individual circle. I have always wondered if this makes the counting of the ballots more or less time consuming?

By golf07 — On Apr 11, 2012

I have noted in many Presidential elections and these have all been done by electronic voting. Each person has a small booth where they mark their ballot and then insert it into the ballet machine.

There are several booths to choose from, but only one machine to put your ballot in.

When you insert your ballot, there is a number on the machine showing how many ballots have already been inserted. You can see the number increase by one after your ballot is inserted.

I have never heard of asking for a ballot receipt before. Is this something that can be done for any general election ballot?

By lighth0se33 — On Apr 10, 2012

@shell4life – I remember using that type of ballot in school. It was probably a lot easier on everyone, because if someone had been forced to read all of our misspelled words and sloppy handwriting, many votes may have gone uncounted.

I am a member of a community improvement group, and we use punch ballots when we need to make big decisions. Often, we are only voting on about three issues at a time, but there are so many of us that using a ballot is more efficient and more private than stating our choices aloud.

We punch all the way through the holes beside our choices, and we drop the ballots into a box with a slit in the top. This way, there are no hard feelings about who voted for what or for whom. I love the confidentiality of it all, and it is so easy to tell which selection has been punched when we are counting the votes.

By shell4life — On Apr 10, 2012

My school used ballots for class elections. We voted for who's who and class president using them, and since the student population was pretty large, it was probably good that they were counted by a computer rather than teachers.

Each ballot had circles that you filled in with a pencil. If you used a pen, the computer could not count your votes.

The teachers made sure that everyone had pencils when it came time to vote. They instructed us to fill in the circle completely and try not to go outside the edges, since the electronic reader would be finicky.

Since this type of form was so similar to the type we used to record our answers during tests, we didn't have a problem understanding how to use it. I think it was the best type of ballot we could have been given.

By Ivan83 — On Apr 09, 2012

There is a lot of thought and study that goes into designing the way a ballot looks. It has to communicate a lot of complicated information while also being understandable for the largest possible number of people.

The butterfly ballots that were used in Florida are one notorious example. The way the candidates names and the voting markers lined up was confusing for a number of people. So many people that it actually called the results of the election into question. Ballots matter. If you do not get them right it can be hard to trust the results.

By chivebasil — On Apr 09, 2012

How do you guys feel about electronic ballots? My feelings are mixed. On the one hand it seems to make a lot of sense. It is much easier to manage data electronically than it is to manage it physically. Elections produce tons of data, all of it very sensitive and valuable. Electronic voting could do a lot to make the process more efficient and representative.

On the other hand we have seen a ton of stories lately about information theft and there is the very real risk that the results could be tampered with. It basically opens the door to election fraud on a grand scale. I don't know what the answer is. If we can make it perfectly safe it would be great, but can it ever be perfectly safe?

By StarJo — On Apr 09, 2012

I work as a graphic designer for a newspaper, and every year, we have a contest in which our readers can vote for the best businesses of their kind in our city. We have categories for everything from best restaurant to best teacher, and we include a ballot in the newspaper on a certain day.

We often sell more papers on that day than usual, because many businesses want to have multiple ballots so that they can get all their employees to cast their votes in their direction. This section generates a lot of revenue for the paper.

We also offer an online ballot. The results of this one are tabulated by an online service, but for the mailed in newspaper ballots, all of us have to count them by hand. We spend many hours doing this, and it makes me wish the ballots were all online, though I do understand how it promotes sales considerably.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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