Ballots: Types and History

Updated February 12, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

by David Johnson

Italian Origins of "Ballot"

The word "ballot" comes from the Italian, "ballotta" or "little colored ball."

In the 13th century some Italian communes used ballottas for votes. But the use of some type of voting mechanism is even older.

Paper Ballots

First used in the Australian state of Victoria in 1857, the paper ballot listing all the candidates was first known as "the Australian ballot." In 1889, New York became the first American state to use these ballots. Gradually, it came to replace voting by ticket.

Although they were once common, today only 1.7% of registered voters use paper ballots. They are primarily used in small towns, rural areas, or for absentee voting.

Mechanical Lever Machines

Until recently, more than half of all American voters used machines with levers beside the name of each candidate. The voter entered a booth, drew a curtain, and then pulled the levers corresponding to each voting choice. The machines recorded the votes and the numbers of people voting.

Also known as the "Myers Automatic Booth," mechanical lever machines made their first appearance in the U.S. at Lockport, N.Y., in 1892. Rochester, New York, used them four years later and soon they were used across New York State. By 1930, residents of most major American cities voted on mechanical machines. In the 1996 presidential elections, however, roughly 20% of all voters used the machines, which are no longer made.

Marksense or direct recording electronic systems are now replacing machines.

Punch Cards

The famous "butterfly" ballot used in Florida is a type of punch card ballot. There are two main types of punch card ballot.

To use one type, voters are issued a list of candidates and ballot questions. Each voting choice is assigned a number. They also receive a punch card covered with holes. Beside each hole is a number. They must punch the hole that corresponds to the number of the choice they wish to make. For example, ballot question 8 might have two choices—number 10 for "yes" and number 11 for "no." Voters would have to punch the hole at the correct number to register their preference.

Or, in using the other type, voters make a hole beside the name of the candidate of their choice.

Punch cards were first used in two Georgia counties for the 1964 presidential primary election. In 1996, 37% of all voters used punch cards, including the 3.8 million registered voters in Los Angeles County, the nation's largest electoral jurisdiction.

Marksense (Optical Scan)

The marksense system, also known as optical scan, is becoming more popular. In 1996, 25% of all American voters used the system. Optical scanning calls for voters to use a black marker fill in a circle, or box beside their voting choice. A scanning machine then picks up the dark markers on the paper, tabulating the results.

Direct Recording Electronic

The direct recording electronic method, DRE, uses a voting machine with the candidates printed on a computer screen. The voters push a button or the appropriate spot on the surface to record their choices. Those wishing to write-in a candidate are able to use a keyboard to type the name. In 1996, nearly 8% of voters used a DRE system.

Hand Count

Town meeting form of government, which is mainly confined to the six New England states, decides questions of government, including the annual operating budget, town by-laws, or other laws with an actual show of hands. If the vote is close, there are provisions in most towns for a secret paper ballot. In some cases the town meeting moderator could ask voters to stand.

In larger towns, voters will elect representatives to legislate at town meeting. In smaller communities, however, "open town meetings" are the norm. In communities with open as opposed to representative town meeting, any registered voter may attend, to speak and vote on the articles under consideration.

Standardized Testing

While various voting methods are used in the United States today, the Federal Election Commission heads a consortium that has designed standards to ensure that electronic systems are accurate and fair. The consortium includes state election commissioners and various technical experts.

The National Association of State Election Directors (NASED) maintains and election center in Houston Texas that maintains records of which voting systems have been tested.

Frequently, American ballots are quite long, especially if voters are being asked to decide a number of questions. English and Canadian ballots, by contrast, are usually quite short.

For more information on voting, mark the Federal Election Commission website,

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