Secret ballot

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Luis Guillermo Solís, President of Costa Rica, votes behind a privacy screen

The secret ballot is a voting method in which a voter's choices in an election or a referendum are anonymous, forestalling attempts to influence the voter by intimidation and potential vote buying. The system is one means of achieving the goal of political privacy.

Secret ballots are used 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 the votes to anyone, the voter would fold the ballot paper and place it into a sealed box, which is emptied later for counting. An aspect of secret voting is the provision of a voting booth to enable the voter to write on the ballot paper without others being able to see what is being written. Today, one of the most common forms of the secret ballot involves 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 designed to eliminate bias and to prevent anyone from linking voter to ballot.

A problem of privacy arises with moves to improve efficiency of voting by the introduction of postal voting and electronic voting. Some countries permit proxy voting, which some argue is inconsistent with voting privacy.


In ancient Greece, secret ballots were used in several situations,[1] 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).[2]

Today the practice of casting secret ballots is so commonplace that most voters would not consider that any other method might be used. Other methods which had been used and which are still used in some places and contexts include "oral votes", public display of votes and roll calls. Other public voting methods include raising a hand to indicate a vote, or the use of coloured marbles or cards to indicate a voting choice.


Article 31 of the French Constitution of 1795[3] states that "All elections are to be held by secret ballot". The same goes with the constitution of 1848:[4] 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[5]) or receive one in a distribution in the street.[6] The ballot is folded in order to prevent other people from reading its content.[citation needed]

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.[7]

According to the official web site of the Assemblée nationale (the lower house of the French parliament), the voting booth was permanently adopted only in 1913.[8]

United Kingdom

The Polling by William Hogarth (1755). Before the secret ballot was introduced, voter intimidation was commonplace.
A British ballot paper from 1880

The demand for a secret ballot was one of the six points of Chartism.[9] 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.[10] The use of numbered ballots makes it possible, given access to the relevant documents, to identify who has voted for whom.

Australia and New Zealand

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 Tasmania on 7 February 1856. Until the original Tasmanian Electoral Act 1856 was 're-discovered' recently, credit for the first implementation of the secret ballot often went to Victoria and South Australia.[11] Victoria enacted legislation for secret ballots on 19 March 1856,[12] and South Australian Electoral Commissioner William Boothby generally gets credit for creating the system finally enacted into law in South Australia on 2 April of that same year (a fortnight later). The other Australian colonies followed: New South Wales (1858), Queensland (1859), and Western Australia (1877). New Zealand implemented secret voting in 1870.

State electoral laws, including the secret ballot, applied for the first election of the Australian Parliament in 1901, and the system has continued to be a feature of federal elections and referenda.

United States

New York polling place circa 1900, showing voting booths on the left.

In the United States the practice became known as the "Australian ballot", defined as having four parts:[13]

  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. Kentucky was the last state to do so in 1891, when it quit using an oral ballot. But seven states did not have government-printed ballots until the 20th century; South Carolina created them in 1950 and Georgia in 1922.[14]

The first city to start using the Australian ballot in the United States was Louisville, Kentucky, and the first state to adopt the Australian ballot was Massachusetts. For this reason it is also known as the "Massachusetts ballot". In the U.S., voting by secret ballot was universal by 1892 but criminal prohibitions against paying people to vote were instituted in 1925.[15]

Elections in the United States are mostly held by secret ballot,[16] although some states use mail ballots instead, which violate requirements 3 and 4 of the "Australian ballot," as it is distributed to the home, and potentially marked in the presence of other people. The states of Oregon and Washington conduct all elections by mailed ballots.[17] The Constitution for the state of West Virginia still allows voters to cast "open ballots".[18]

International Law

The right to hold elections by secret ballot is included in numerous treaties and international agreements that obligate their signatory states:

  • Article 23 of the American Convention on Human Rights (the Pact of San Jose, Costa Rica) grants to every citizen of member states of the Organization of American States the right and opportunity "to vote and to be elected in genuine periodic elections, which shall be by universal and equal suffrange and by secret ballot that guarantees the free expression of the will of the voters".[19]
  • Paragraph 7.4 of the Document of the Copenhagen Meeting of the Conference on the Human Dimension of the CSCE, obligates the member states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to "ensure that votes are cast by secret ballot or by equivalent free voting procedure, and that they are counted and reported honestly with the official results made public."[20]
  • Article 5 of the Convention on the Standards of Democratic Elections, Electoral Rights and Freedoms in the Member States of the Commonwealth of Independent States obligates electoral bodies not to perform "any action violating the principle of voter's secret will expression."[21]

Note that the extent to which a nation is bound by treaties it has signed varies considerably. In some nations, treaty obligations are on a par with constitutional obligations and trump domestic law when they conflict, while in other nations, treaty obligations have only limited force unless explicit legislation is enacted distinct from the ratification of the treaty.[citation needed]

Disabled people

ISG TopVoter, a voting machine which assures secret ballot for voters with disabilities.

Ballot design and polling place architecture often denies the disabled the possibility to cast a vote in secret. In many democracies[citation needed] 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 formally permissible only if an Election Court requires it; 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.[22]

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 ruled that the U.S. Constitution does not grant a right to a secret ballot.[23]


Secret ballot has garnered criticism in Estonia. A political party Viimane Erakond (Final Party) has been founded, that claims instituting open ballot as its main goal. They are highly critical of Estonian e-voting solutions in its present form, but stress that this could serve as a convenient and logical platform for open ballot.

Chronology of introduction

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Date Country Notes
1831 France
1849 Netherlands, United States
1853 Colombia
1856 (February 7) Australia (Tasmania) The other Australian colonies 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.
1900[24] Japan
1901 Denmark In connection with The Shift of Government (Danish: Systemskiftet)[25]
1903 Iceland Originally passed by the Icelandic parliament in 1902, but the legislation was rejected by King Christian IX for technical reasons unrelated to ballot secrecy.[26] Passed into law 1903.[27]
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


  1. Saalfeld, Thomas. 1995. On Dogs and Whips: Recorded Votes. In: Herbert Döring. Parliaments and Majority Rule in Western Europe. New York : St. Martin's Press, 1995. Page 531
  2. Tabellariae Leges. William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.: A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.
  3. Wikisource-logo.svg Full text of the French Constitution of 1795 on Wikisource (French)
  4. Article 24. — Le suffrage est direct et universel. Le scrutin est secret. s:fr:Constitution du 4 novembre 1848
  5. Pour être recevable, chaque vote doit être inscrit sur un papier blanc : fr:Élection présidentielle française de 1848
  6. See the picture captioned Distribution des bulletins d'élections dans les rues. L'Illustration du 23 septembre 1848 on Assemblée Nationale website
  7. Karl Marx The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon : For the bourgeois and the shopkeeper had learned that in one of his decrees of December 2 Bonaparte had abolished the secret ballot and had ordered them to put a "yes" or "no" after their names on the official registers. The resistance of December 4 intimidated Bonaparte. During the night he had placards posted on all the street corners of Paris announcing the restoration of the secret ballot. Full text (chapter VII)
  8. Assemblée nationale : La République et le suffrage universel
  9. In the words of the petition that was published in 1838:
    "The suffrage, to be exempt from the corruption of the wealthy and the violence of the powerful, must be secret." [1]
  10. Pontefract's secret ballot box, 1872
  11. Terry Newman, Tasmania and the Secret Ballot PDF (144 KiB) (2003), 49(1) Aust J Pol & Hist 93, accessed May 20, 2015
  12. Payment of Members Act 1870 (Vic)
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  14. See 1922 Georgia session laws, chapter 530, p. 100.
  15. 18 U.S.C. § 597 - Expenditures to influence voting
  16. The party nominating caucuses in some U.S. states (most significantly the leadoff Presidential nominating state of Iowa) still require an open casting of ballots.
  17. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  18. See W. Va. Const. Art. IV, §2, "In all elections by the people, the mode of voting shall be by ballot; but the voter shall be left free to vote by either open, sealed or secret ballot, as he may elect.".
  19. American Convention on Human Rights, "Pact of San Jose", Costa Rica, Organization of American States, Nov. 22, 1969.
  20. Document of the Copenhagen Meeting of the Conference on the Human Dimension of the CSCE, Copenhagen, June 29, 1990.
  21. Convention on the Stnadards of Democratic Elections, Electoral Rights and Freedoms in the Member States of the Commonwealth of Independent States, Oct. 7, 2002, Chisinau. Unofficial English translation provided by the European Commission for Democracy through Law (Venice Commission), Jan. 22, 2007.
  22. Factsheet: Ballot secrecy PDF (48 KiB) (2006), Electoral Commission of the United Kingdom
  23. Federal judge says no constitutional right to secret ballot in Boulder case - The Denver Post
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External links