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.
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