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A ballot is a device for casting a vote. Traditionally, the word referred exclusively to a piece of paper, but modern usage also applies the term to electronic voting methods. Generally, ballot format covers both how the choices for various electoral contests are arranged and how choices (votes) are recorded.

The information conveyed on a ballot varies by voting system. Some electoral rules require rankings of multiple candidates, others require the selection of one or more alternatives from a set, and others involve multiple choices, such as picking one party from a list and also ranking various individuals from that party. There is also much variation in how access to the ballot is gained, precisely what information about candidates is listed, how choices are ordered, and whether voters check boxes, punch out perforated tabs of paper, press buttons, write out numbers or names, and so on.

Probably the most fundamental aspect of ballots is whether they are cast in secret. Voting in early democracies was done openly, and ballots were even produced by parties in distinct colors and shapes, to allow observers to determine how individuals voted.

Secret ballots were first introduced in Australia, and the term Australian ballot is still often used to refer to any ballot cast privately, even in places that share no other electoral rules with modern Australia. Many polities have made early and absentee voting (usually done by mail) easier in recent decades, in an effort to boost turnout. However, since absentee ballots are not cast in secret, they make old-style fraud, such as vote buying, much easier.

American elections usually feature many contests. In parliamentary democracies, it is more common for ballots to feature few races, sometimes only one. When ballots do cover multiple races, an important distinction is whether all candidates seeking a given office (as representatives of different parties) are grouped together or, instead, all candidates from a given party (seeking different offices) are grouped together. Sometimes ballots include an option to vote for all candidates from a party in a single stroke, though this so-called straight-ticket option has gradually become less common in American states.

In the 2000 American presidential election, Palm Beach County, Florida, used the now-famous butterfly ballot, wherein the names of competing candidates alternated from appearing to the left or the right of their associated punch-holes as one moved down the list. Analysis later suggested that many voters were confused by the format.

On a spoiled ballot, the choice(s) of the voter cannot be discerned. More complicated electoral systems and ballots featuring more contests tend to see higher rates of spoilage (including overvoting, the selection of more candidates than are legally permitted) and of undervoting (selective abstention, which is usually allowed).

As jurisdictions increasingly employ varieties of electronic voting, new issues with ballot formats have emerged. One important issue is whether computer voting systems generate a hard paper copy of the choices of voters along with the electronic copy, as a means of limiting fraud or accidental vote loss.

SEE ALSO Compulsory Voting; Elections; Electoral Systems; Party Systems, Competitive; Voting; Voting Patterns; Voting Rights Act; Voting Schemes


Albright, Spencer D. 1942. The American Ballot. Washington, DC: American Council on Public Affairs.

Evans, Eldon Cobb. 1927. A History of the Australian Ballot System in the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fredman, Lionel E. 1968. The Australian Ballot: The Story of an American Reform. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.

Wand, Jonathan N., et al. 2001. The Butterfly Did It: The Aberrant Vote for Buchanan in Palm Beach County, Florida. American Political Science Review 95 (4): 793-810.

Brian J. Gaines