The ballot was used in Athens in the 5th cent. B.C. by the popular courts and, on the question of ostracism, by the people as a whole; in India before 300 B.C.; and in Rome by the popular assemblies and occasionally by the senate. Ballots were not used during the Middle Ages, but reappeared in the Italian communes and in elections to the papacy during the 13th cent. In the 16th and 17th cent. the ballot appeared in English borough and university elections.
The General Court of Massachusetts elected governors by ballot after 1634; corn and beans were occasionally used as ballots. Early American ballots were known as "papers": the name ballot does not occur in America before 1676. The British colonies in America were the first to elect representatives by secret ballot, and its use was made obligatory in all but one of the state constitutions adopted in the United States between 1776 and 1780. In the 19th cent. the use of the ballot became widespread in local and national elections in Europe.
Groups wishing to intimidate popular governance have opposed the ballot. The effort to reform election abuses led to the widespread use of the Australian ballot, which was adopted in Victoria in 1857, in Great Britain in 1872, and grew increasingly popular in the United States after 1888. In the latter country it gradually replaced earlier methods of voting such as the lengthy "tickets" distributed by political parties. In the Australian system all candidates' names are printed on a single ballot and placed in the polling places at public expense, and the printing, distribution, and marking of the ballot are protected by law, thus assuring a secret vote.
The Australian ballot is now used in many European countries and in almost all sections of the United States. Separate ballots are frequently distributed for referendums and constitutional propositions. Mechanical, computerized, electronic, or optically scannable means of voting (see voting machine) are now used to record about 90% of all votes in the United States. Estonia used an Internet website as alternative means of voting for local candidates in 2005 and national candidates in 2007. The institution of official ballots and the use of voting machines have helped bring political parties under the scope of the law.
Some critics have denounced the excessive length of the United States ballots, claiming that voters are thus too pressed for time in their decisions. The use of the presidential short ballot, listing only the candidates, not the electors pledged to them, has not much alleviated this problem.
A ballot is a device (originally a small ball—see blackball) used to record choices made by voters. Each voter uses one ballot, and ballots are not shared. In the simplest elections, a ballot may be a simple scrap of paper on which each voter writes in the name of a candidate, but governmental elections use pre-printed to protect the secrecy of the votes. The voter casts his/her ballot in a box at a polling station.
The first use of paper ballots to conduct an election appears to have been in Rome in 139 BC, and the first use of paper ballots in North America was in 1629 within the Massachusetts Bay Colony to select a pastor for the Salem Church.
In the United States initially paper ballots were pieces of paper marked and supplied by voters. Later on, political parties and candidates provided preprinted ballots for voters to cast.
The United States has a unique politics of long and short ballot. Before the Civil War, many believed democracy was enhanced by increasing the number of elective offices to include such comparatively minor posts as the state-level secretary of state, county surveyor, register of deeds, county coroner, and city clerk. A larger number of elected offices required longer ballots, and at times the long ballot undoubtedly resulted in confusion and blind voting, though the seriousness of either problem can be disputed. Reformers attacked the long ballot during the Progressive Era (circa 1893–1917). In the United States today, the term ballot reform sometimes refers to efforts to reduce the number of elected offices.
Some political scientists prefer more explicit statement of the voter's actual tolerances and preferences, and believe that failure to reflect these in ballot design and voting system alternatives causes many problems and leads for calls for electoral reform. For instance, a non-binding referendum or poll, carried out on a ballot, carries much more weight than one carried out with only a public sampling in a less politically committed event than an election. For example, one might count the number of ballots whereon the voter had crossed out the name of the political party that nominated the candidate, even if (maybe only if) that voter had voted for him or her. This would indicate support for candidates but would be able to send signals to them that the "party line" was not why that voter voted for them, but rather, she or he expected them to act independently.
Such marking and counting could be carried out on an ordinary ballot with no provision for it, however, there would be risk of counting it as "spoiled" if the marks were unclear, and if ballot design had not allowed for it initially.