On Tuesday, November 8, millions of American will go to the polling stations to vote. Others have already voted. But all of them will vote in secret, either through a mailed-in ballot or else at a polling booth behind a curtain. But this is a relatively modern way of voting. Before the late 19th century, Americans, and pretty much everybody who lived in a country with a republican-style government, voted publicly, their vote known to those around them. What changed between then and today? You can thank the Australians.
Until the mid-1800s, casting a ballot was very different than how ballots are cast today. The term ballot itself comes from the Italian word ballota, meaning “little ball.” In colonial times, ballots were often cast using small balls or other ball-like objects such as peas, beans, pebbles, or bullets. Other means of voting might be through simply shouting out your preference, raising your hand, or standing in a particular spot with all others who supported your candidate or political issue. Later on, ballots might be done on paper, but you usually would write out which candidates you were voting for, and turn them all in on election day. In those times, casting a secret ballot was seen as under-handed cowardly. Voting was a holiday, and casting your vote was a civic responsibility.
So why did we stop voting in this way? In one word: Corruption. By the mid-1800s, democracy was coming into vogue. The idea of direct election was more popular, and more people were being allowed the right to vote. Along with this, political parties were gaining strength, and exerted pressure on constituents to vote along partisan lines. When votes are public, voters can be intimidated, bribed, sometimes even attacked. This was a serious problem in the United States, but far more serious a problem in Australia, where intimidation and bribery were taken for granted on election day.
Although the exact origins of the secret ballot are unclear, the implementation of secret voting is credited to Australia in the 1850s, and this is why secret voting is often called the “Australian ballot.” The practice soon spread to Britain and the United States, though unevenly at first. By the 1890s in the United States, Australian-style ballots were nearly universal, and continues to be the practice today.
The above history is a very brief summary of a complex and fascinating history. There is a New Yorker article that details much of this history, so if you want to learn a lot more, please read Rock, Paper, Scissors: How We Used to Vote.
- Australian Ballot, accessed November 6, 2016
- Abolish the Secret Ballot, accessed November 6, 2016
- Secret ballot, accessed November 6, 2016
- Australian ballot, accessed November 6, 2016