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The secret ballot is a voting method in which a voter's choices in an election or a referendum are confidential. 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. 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 their choice. Without revealing their vote to anyone, the voters place the ballots into a sealed box, which is emptied later for counting.

One of the most common forms in the modern world provides for pre-printed ballot papers with the name of the candidates or questions and respective checkboxes. Provisions are made at the polling place for the voter to record their preferences in secret. The ballots are specifically designed to eliminate bias and to prevent anyone from linking voter to ballot. This system is also known as the Australian ballot, because it originated in Australia during the 1850s. 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 Ancient Greece, secret ballots were used in several occasions[1], like ostracism and also to remain hidden from people seeking favors. In Ancient Rome, Laws regulating elections are collectively known as Tabellariae Leges, the first of which was introduced in 139 BC (gabinia lex)[2]. Today the practice of casting secret ballots is so commonplace that most voters would not consider that any other method might be used, yet in the 19th century it was highly



Article 31 of the French Constitution of 1795[3] states that All elections are to be held by secret ballot. But, according to the official web site of the Assemblee nationale (French Parliament), the secrecy of the vote was permanently adopted only in 1914. [2]

United Kingdom

The Polling by William Hogarth (1755). Before the secret ballot was introduced, voter intimidation was commonplace.

The demand for a secret ballot was one of the six points of Chartism.[4] The 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 secret ballot was one of the two points he could support. The secret ballot was eventually introduced in the Ballot Act 1872, substantially reducing the cost of campaigning.

The use of numbered ballots has removed the secret ballot in theory, although it has little effect in practice.


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.[5] 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

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:[6]

  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 Australian ballot used in the United States was at Lexington, Massachusetts.

Elections in the United States are now almost always held by secret ballot.[7] The Constitution for the State of West Virginia still allows voters to cast "open ballots"[8].

Secret Ballot of Disabled Persons

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

Secret ballot is a sine qua non for a functioning democracy and a right to secret ballot is one of the basic political rights. However, ballot design and polling place architecture often denies disabled persons 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 arrangement, however, does not assure secrecy of the ballot for the disabled persons.

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, i.e. the United States, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Albania or India allow disabled voters to use electronic voting machines. In others, among them Azerbaijan, Kosovo, 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, i.e. Sweden and the United States, all the polling places already are fully accessible for disabled voters.

Secrecy vs. reliability

The UK 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 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 ballot is not secret at all.

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 Elections Court requires it, and this is an extremely unlikely occurrence. 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.[9]

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 an elector has voted and ensure he can only vote once, but the ballots themselves are anonymous. At the end of voting day, the number of ballots inside the box must 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.

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.
1870 New Zealand
1872 United Kingdom In the UK this was passed by the 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)[10]
1907 Austria
1907 Finland
1912 Argentina
1918 Uruguay
1919 Romania
1925 Costa Rica
1931 Peru
1932 Brazil
1946 Venezuela
1950 Turkey
1950 El Salvador


  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. ^ 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]
  5. ^ Terry Newman, Tasmania and the Secret BallotPDF (144 KiB) (2003), 49(1) Aust J Pol & Hist 93, accessed February 27, 2006
  6. ^ See page 59 of: Webster's Seventh New Colligiate Dictionary. Springfield, Massachusetts: G&C Merriam Company. 1967. 
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ 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.".
  9. ^ Factsheet: Ballot secrecyPDF (48 KiB) (2006), Electoral Commission of the United Kingdom
  10. ^ Elklit, Jørgen (1988). Fra åben til hemmelig afstemning. Århus, Denmark: Politica. pp. 299 ff. 

See also

External links


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