The History of the Secret Ballot

By Ishan Sharma


The secret ballot saved David Davies, the founder of Barry Docks, a great deal of money.

Today, the secret ballot, which allows voters to secretly mark their favoured candidate on a slip of paper printed by the government, is a mainstay of democracy. It is widely considered necessary for any sort of popular election. But this was not always the case. In the nineteenth century, representative governments practiced a variety of methods, and ultimately it was the secret ballot in its modern form which won out.

In British parliamentary elections, voters stood atop a public platform known as a husting, where they stated their vote to an officer who recorded it. This, by its very nature, meant that there was no privacy to voting whatsoever. The vote was commonly viewed as a “trust” on behalf of non-voters, and this meant election officers took great lengths to ensure the vote was as public as possible such that even non-voters were admitted to view voting. All of this meant that British elections were carnivalesque affairs, and it added to the often-violent nature of British elections prior to the reforms of the nineteenth century. At the same time, open ballots were in use for some municipal elections in many forms, such as depositing beans or balls into ballot boxes.

These practices were transmitted to the Thirteen Colonies, and as a result an eclectic mix of voting methods were used. Another method which emerged was the use of written ballots prepared by voters before elections, though in practice this meant party agents prepared ballots and distributed them to voters. This meant that the vote was not secret at all. This method quickly grew dominant after the American Revolution, and it was included in state constitutions.

In contrast, in France, no such tradition of publicity existed. The elections to the Estates-General of 1789 were held orally in closed spaces which excluded non-voters. With the French Revolution, written ballots were instituted. These were blank slips of paper on which voters wrote their preferred candidate in same room as the electoral officers. Although this was intended as a measure to make voting more secret, it amounted to an open ballot

This lack of secrecy was noticed at the time, and in 1794, the law professor Jacques Vincent Delacroix suggested that, for referenda, ballots contain separate “compartments” for each proposition, and that voters go into private booths to write their vote beside each proposal and fold their paper to ensure secrecy. This very forward-thinking proposal was not taken up, however, and the existing open ballot was retained by all the various ruling governments until 1848. The only exception to this were the referenda conducted during Napoleonic times, which were conducted orally. After the 1848 revolution, the ballot system was changed further. Voters could now bring in pre-prepared ballots, and in practice this meant a system of ballot distribution by party agents very much like those in the United States.

Jeremy Bentham as painted by Henry William Pickersgill

In these systems, secrecy was by its very nature compromised. However, it was first in Britain, with its chaotic elections, that a major challenge to the current system first emerged. The radical movement emerged from the late eighteenth century, advocating the expansion of the right to vote and other reforms. From the 1810s, radicals believed oral voting corrupted the purity of elections, as it opened the door to poor voter bribery and allowed landowners to force their tenants to vote the way they wished. Often, they exaggerated the secrecy of the American ballot system to justify their positions. Nevertheless, different schemes for the secret ballot emerged. The philosopher Jeremy Bentham, in his Radical Reform Bill (1818) proposed a particularly strange secret ballot system. This consisted of a box, with a viewing window, which contained smaller selection boxes, each containing ballots corresponding to a candidate. A voter would then choose a ballot by placing their arms through slots at the ends of the outer box and, using the viewing window, would then choose a ballot. This system, overly elaborate as it is, demonstrates that our present secret ballot system was by no means obvious from the perspective of people in the nineteenth century.

Though radicals supported the institution of the secret ballot, others opposed it. The secret ballot was called fundamentally dishonest, un-English, un-manly, and selfish, among other things. Other opponents of the secret ballot defended bribery or landlord influence as perfectly legitimate. Both major parties, the Tories and the Whigs, opposed the secret ballot for these reasons, and as a result, the 1832 Reform Act included no provision establishing the secret ballot. Nevertheless, throughout the 1830s, radical MPs promoted the secret ballot and continually put it up to the vote, failing each time. Most famously, the Chartist movement promoted the secret ballot as one of its six demands for constitutional reform. However, this effort failed as well.

It was ultimately in Australia that the secret ballot was first implemented. As self-government emerged in the 1840s and 50s, elections often caused riots. Furthermore, Australian politics were deeply influenced by British radicalism. As a result, a secret ballot rapidly grew. In the colony of Victoria, this movement proved successful. The kind of secret ballot to be implemented was initially going to be a blank slip of paper, on which voters were to privately write their preferred candidate. However, in 1856, the councillor Henry Samuel Chapman made a decisive intervention, advocating a secret ballot on which the government printed candidate names for voters to select the names of their preferred candidate. This system is almost identical to that used today, and it only differs in that voting in Chapman’s system consisted of crossing out the names of all non-preferred candidates. This system was implemented successfully, and it quickly spread across Australia.

John Stuart Mill was an MP and philosopher who opposed the secret ballot

From here, the example in Australia was seized by British radicals. It demonstrated a written ballot system with total secrecy, and thus they used this example to prove the superiority of the secret ballot. The 1867 Reform Act dramatically increased the electorate in Britain, but this came with electoral violence and increased delays with voting, both of which bolstered the secret ballot movement. Even at this point, there were many opponents of the secret ballot who believed deeply in voting being a public trust such as the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill. Nevertheless, in 1872, the secret ballot was implemented in British parliamentary elections. It proved successful, and by the end of the century it was extended to all elections in the nation. The only exceptions were the Oxford and Cambridge parliamentary university seats, which lacked the secret ballot right up until their abolition in 1948.

In the United States, the issue of the secrecy of the ballot achieved some notability in the 1870s, but it was only in the 1880s it became major. The secret ballot was known as the “Australian ballot” in the United States, to differentiate it with the existing ballot. It was first implemented in Kentucky in 1888 for municipal elections, and in Massachusetts in 1889 for all statewide elections. The secret ballot exploded onto the scene, and by 1892 most states in the Union used it. This quick spread is because of the deficiencies of the existing ballot system which, despite being called the “secret ballot”, was not secret at all. The “Australian ballot” was a cure to this. This spread slowed down after 1892, however, and South Carolina did not have secret ballots printed by the government until 1950. Nevertheless, it rapidly became a mainstay in American elections.

However, it took much longer for the secret ballot to be implemented in France. The secret ballot in France came to be known as the “Belgian ballot”, after Belgium implemented the secret ballot in 1877. As in Britain, a long association with a certain voting method (in this case the open ballot) led to it being associated with the national character. Another factor was a suspicion that government preparation of ballots would amount to the official endorsement of candidates. Furthermore, French elections tended to be relative tranquil, which weakened the argument that the secret ballot would reduce electoral violence. Over time, as more and more countries adopted the secret ballot, these arguments were whittled away as proponents of the secret ballots had more examples to support their positions, and in 1913, France finally implemented the secret ballot. It was one of the last nations in the world to do so.

Since then, there have been many further developments. One has been the use of machines, both to record and count votes. This was first used in the United States in the early twentieth century to make elections more efficient, but has quickly spread around the world. Today, the secret ballot is integral to democracy and its absence is viewed as a democratic deficit.

There are numerous potential divergences. One is the adoption of Delacroix’s proposal for the secret ballot for referenda in This system, self-evidently effective could be adopted for elections for candidates as well in the same period. Though Napoleon would have likely still implemented oral elections for referenda, nevertheless the secret ballot could still exist for at least some Napoleonic elections, and perhaps he would spread it with his conquests. Historically the secret ballot was associated with the Anglo-American world, but here it may instead be considered a continental European phenomenon, and its spread to Britain may occur with far more resistance for that reason. Even in continental Europe, it may be suppressed due to associations with republicanism, only re-emerging over the course the nineteenth century. It would nevertheless be a clear example of a simple and effective secret ballot system, one which its proponents could promote.

Another possibility is that another form of the secret ballot becomes mainstream. Jeremy Bentham’s method, mentioned above, seems difficult to implement and easily vulnerable to diminished secrecy. A written secret ballot as proposed in Australia is likelier, though one could imagine bad handwriting resulting in many spoiled ballots. This may result in reform of the ballot system.

Finally, it is possible that there is no widespread secret ballot, with France and the United States continuing to use open ballots and Britain continuing to use oral voting. Clearly, there were many who believed the secret ballot was a detriment; perhaps they could have won out. Alternatively, if Britain were to institute a ballot system a few decades earlier than in our history, it could possibly have instituted a system like that in France and the United States, and this may result in the secret ballot either never being instituted or being instituted in very few nations.

It is due to a great many reasons that the secret ballot was created, and it was because of others that it has become as influential as it is. That it has become such an integral part of democracy was far from inevitable. 

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