This week’s election reminds Americans that the pen (or, in this case, paper) is mightier than the sword, and that some revolutions are fought with ink and wood pulp rather than gunpowder.
Despite its oligarchic roots in ancient civilizations, the electoral process has become an essential component of freedom and a powerful symbol of representative democracy worldwide. The paper ballot also made its debut in the Roman Empire, in 139 B.C.E. But as with most inventions during antiquity, the Greeks beat the Romans to the punch.
Before paper ballots, the ancient Greeks used broken pieces of pottery with names scratched on them to tally votes, a process tightly rooted in the practice of ostracism (i.e. banishing a citizen from Athens – similar to the modern practice of “voting out” incumbent representatives). Why broken pottery? At the time, papyrus was relatively rare and valuable – an imported luxury from Egypt – while broken pottery was abundant.
Paper ballots were first used in North America in 1629, for the election of a Salem, Mass. church pastor. But early paper ballots were not uniformly cut or printed – in fact, voters themselves had to supply paper ballots in early America and later, political parties printed their own ballots with pre-selected candidates. The modern, “secret ballot” voting method can be traced to 19th century Australia.
Perhaps the most infamous paper ballot is the controversial “butterfly ballot” used in several states (including Florida) during the 2000 U.S. Presidential Election. Errors by confused voters and/or misaligned voting machines resulted in a statewide recount, which was later suspended by the U.S. Supreme Court, and a victory for President George W. Bush.
Despite the 2000 election debacle in Florida, early calls to replace paper ballots with electronic voting machines were quickly stymied by watchdog organizations, which raised the possibility of electronic tampering or “hacking” as a new means of voter fraud. Most states responded by keeping paper ballots in place, assuring ballot security through traditional methods of election judging, ballot challenges, etc.
Do you remember the first time you voted? Did you use an old-school “ballot puncher” or an optical scanner? Tell us about your first ballot, or share your most recent voting experience.