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Australian Ballot

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Title: Australian Ballot  
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Subject: History of Australia, Human rights in Australia, William Simon U'Ren, History of South Australia, Vermont House of Representatives, History of Australia (1851–1900)
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Australian Ballot

For 2001 Iranian film, see Secret Ballot (film).

The secret ballot is a voting method in which a voter's choices in an election or a referendum are both secret and anonymous. The key aim is to ensure the voter records a sincere choice by forestalling attempts to influence the voter by intimidation or bribery. The system is one means of achieving the goal of political privacy. However, the secret ballot may increase the amount of vote buying where it is still legal by paying lukewarm supporters to turn out and paying lukewarm opponents to stay home, and therefore may reduce the costs of buying an election.[1]

Secret ballots are suitable for many different voting systems. The most basic form may be blank pieces of paper, upon which each voter writes only his or her choice. Without revealing their votes to anyone, the electors place the ballots into a sealed box, which is emptied later for counting.

In the modern world one of the most common forms of the secret ballot involves pre-printed ballot papers with the name of the candidates or questions and respective checkboxes. Provisions are made at the polling place for the voters to record their preferences in secret. The ballots are specifically designed to eliminate bias and to prevent anyone from linking voter to ballot. In the United States, it is also known as the Massachusetts ballot since Massachusetts was the first U.S. state to use the secret ballot. In the U.S., voting by secret ballot was universal by 1892, but criminal prohibitions against paying people to vote for a particular candidate or not were instituted in 1925.[2]


In ancient Greece, secret ballots were used in several situations,[3] like ostracism, and also to remain hidden from people seeking favors.

In ancient Rome, the laws regulating elections were collectively known as Tabellariae Leges, the first of which was introduced in 139 BC (Lex Gabinia tabellaria).[4]

Today the practice of casting secret ballots is so commonplace that most voters would not consider that any other method might be used.


Article 31 of the French Constitution of 1795[5] states that "All elections are to be held by secret ballot". The same goes with the constitution of 1848:[6] voters could hand-write the name of their preferred candidate on their ballot at home (the only condition was to write on a white paper[7]) or receive one in a distribution in the street.[8] The ballot is folded in order to prevent other people from reading its content.[9]

Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte attempted to abolish the secret ballot for the 1851 plebiscite with an electoral decree requesting electors to write down "yes" or "no" (in French: "oui" or "non") under the eyes of everyone. But he faced a strong opposition and finally changed his mind, allowing secret ballot to take place.[10]

According to the official web site of the Assemblee nationale (the lower house of the French parliament), the voting booth was permanently adopted only in 1913.[11]

United Kingdom

The demand for a secret ballot was one of the six points of Chartism.[12] The British parliament of the time refused to even consider the Chartist demands but it is notable that Lord Macaulay, in his speech of 1842, while rejecting Chartism's six points as a whole, admitted that the secret ballot was one of the two points he could support.

The London School Board election of 1870 was the first large-scale election by secret ballot in Britain.

The secret ballot was eventually extended generally in the Ballot Act 1872, substantially reducing the cost of campaigning, and was first used on 15 August 1872 to re-elect Hugh Childers as MP for Pontefract in a ministerial by-election following his appointment as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. The original ballot box, sealed in wax with a liquorice stamp, is held at Pontefract museum.[13] The use of numbered ballots makes it theoretically possible, given access to the relevant documents, to identify who has voted for whom, although it has never been done since the secret ballot was introduced.


Chartist ideas influenced the miners of Eureka Stockade in 1854 in Victoria where they adopted all of Chartism's six points including the secret ballot. Secret balloting appears to have been first implemented in the former Australian colony (now a state) of Tasmania on February 7, 1856. Until the original Tasmanian Electoral Act of 1856 was 're-discovered' recently, credit for the first implementation of the secret ballot often went to the colonies of Victoria and South Australia.[14] Victoria enacted legislation for secret ballots on March 19, 1856, and South Australian Electoral Commissioner William Boothby generally gets credit for creating the system finally enacted into law in South Australia on April 2 of that same year (a fortnight later).

United States

In the United States the practice became known as the "Australian ballot", defined as having four parts:[15]

  1. an official ballot being printed at public expense,
  2. on which the names of the nominated candidates of all parties and all proposals appear,
  3. being distributed only at the polling place and
  4. being marked in secret.

In the United States, most states had moved to secret ballots soon after the presidential election of 1884. However, Kentucky was the last state to do so in 1891, when it quit using an oral ballot. Therefore, the first President of the United States elected completely under the Australian ballot was president Grover Cleveland in 1892.

The first city to start using Australian ballot in the United States was Louisville, Kentucky, and the first state to adopt Australian ballot was Massachusetts.

Elections in the United States are mostly held by secret ballot,[16] although some states use mail ballots instead, which violate two of the four requirements of the "Australian ballot".[17] The Constitution for the State of West Virginia still allows voters to cast "open ballots".[18]

Disabled people

Ballot design and polling place architecture often denies the disabled the possibility to cast a vote in secret. In many democracies disabled persons vote by appointing another person who fills the ballot in their name. This does not assure secrecy of the ballot.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which entered into force in 2008 assures secret ballot for disabled voters. Article 29 of the Convention requires that all Contracting States protect "the right of persons with disabilities to vote by secret ballot in elections and public referendums". According to this provision, each Contracting State should provide for voting equipment which would enable disabled voters to vote independently and secretly. Some democracies, e.g. the United States, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Albania or India allow disabled voters to use electronic voting machines. In others, among them Azerbaijan, Canada, Ghana, the United Kingdom, and most African and Asian countries, visually impaired voters can use ballots in Braille or paper ballot templates. Article 29 also requires that Contracting States ensure "that voting procedures, facilities and materials are appropriate, accessible and easy to understand and use." In some democracies, e.g. The United Kingdom, Sweden and the United States, all the polling places already are fully accessible for disabled voters.

Secrecy vs. reliability

The United Kingdom secret ballot arrangements are sometimes criticised because it is possible to link a ballot paper to the voter who cast it. Each ballot paper is individually numbered and each elector also has a number. When an elector is given a ballot paper, their number is noted down on the counterfoil of the ballot paper (which also carries the ballot paper number). This means, of course, that the secrecy of the ballot is not guaranteed, if anyone can gain access to the counterfoils, which are locked away securely before the ballot boxes are opened at the count. Polling station officials colluding with election scrutineers may therefore determine how individual electors have voted.

This measure is thought to be justified as a security arrangement so that if there was an allegation of fraud, false ballot papers could be identified. The process of matching ballot papers to voters is permissible only if an Election Court requires it, and that is very unlikely; in fact the Election Court has never made such an order since the secret ballot was introduced in 1872. The legal authority for this system is set out in the Parliamentary Elections Rules in Schedule 1 of the Representation of the People Act 1983.[19]

In the United States, sometimes the number on the ballot is printed on a perforated stub which is torn off and placed on a ring (like a shower curtain ring) before the ballot is cast into the ballot box. The stubs prove that an elector has voted and ensure he can only vote once, but the ballots themselves are both secret and anonymous. At the end of voting day, the number of ballots inside the box should match the number of stubs on the ring, certifying that every ballot was cast by a registered elector, and that none of them were lost or fabricated. Sometimes the ballots themselves are numbered, making the vote trackable. This was ruled legal by Federal District Judge Christine Arguello, who denied the existence of a constitutional right to a secret ballot.[20]

Chronology of introduction

Date Country Notes
1795 (August 22) France
1849 Netherlands
1853 Colombia
1856 (February 7) Australia (Tasmania) The other Australian states of Victoria (March 19, 1856), South Australia (April 2, 1856), New South Wales (1858), Queensland (1859), and Western Australia (1877) followed.
1861 Italy
1861 Ecuador
1866 Sweden Voter chooses party-specific ballot in the open, limiting the secrecy. There is, however, the possibility to choose a blank ballot on which you can choose any party in complete secrecy.
1870 New Zealand
1872 United Kingdom Ballot Act 1872
1872 Switzerland
1874 Canada
1877 Belgium
1885 Norway
1891 United States of America Massachusetts was the first state to hold a secret ballot, in 1888, and Kentucky was the last to do so, in 1891.
1901 Denmark In connection with The Shift of Government (Danish: Systemskiftet)[21]
1906 Russia
1907 Austria
1907 Finland
1912 Argentina
1918 Poland
1918 Uruguay
1919 Romania
1925 Costa Rica
1931 Peru
1932 Brazil
1946 Venezuela
1947 Hungary
1950 Turkey
1950 El Salvador

See also


External links

  • A little bit of revision: Tasmania adopts the ballot in 1856
  • Death of the secret ballot
  • The Secret Ballot Comes To Utah (1878)
  • Celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Australian ballot
  • ACE Project
  • International IDEA
  • Decing - Simple Web 2.0 online service for quick decision making via Secret Ballot for small teams.
  • Philip Pettit & Geoffrey Brennan, "Unveiling the Vote" British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 20, pp. 311-33
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