Voting papers in this first box were sealed in with a liquorice stamp. © Wakefield Council
Voting papers in this first box were sealed in with a liquorice stamp. © Wakefield Council

A brief history of... the ballot box

8 June 2017

We seem to drop our votes into them on a regular basis these days, but the humble, beautifully democratic ballot box hasn’t been around forever

There are four boxes of liberty, so the American saying goes: the soap box, the ballot box, the jury box and the ammo box – to be used in that order.

The ballot box is synonymous with democracy and returning officers across the UK were forced last week to pull theirs out of storage once again thanks to June’s snap election. But it wasn’t always so. When the box was introduced in the UK during the 1872 Pontefract by-election, some considered it un-English and un-manly (voting was still restricted to men).

Before then, voters would announce publicly who they wished to vote for. This was often done by verbally pronouncing your choice in a rowdy, boisterous and sometimes drunken public meeting. Reports remarked on how civilised the Pontefract election was.

As it transpired, the introduction of the ballot box, and with it the secret ballot, didn’t change the outcome of the election, and the frontrunner before the Ballot Act 1872 was passed still won. But the secret ballot did strip away much of the opportunity for corruption or coercion, and occasionally even violence, that sometimes accompanied a public vote.

The word ballot is derived from the Italian word ballotta (‘ball’), and dates back to the mid-16th century. Wooden balls were used to cast votes in gentlemen’s clubs. Each member would audibly drop a ball, white in favour or black against, into a box. Onlookers would be able to hear the member had voted, but not see which way.

While America has innovated with punch-cards and voting machines, and others have explored internet voting – Estonians have voted online since 2007 – the UK and many other countries have kept paper ballots.

The UK boxes haven’t changed much since 1872. The box itself has been little more than a sealed, tamper-proof container with a slot in the top. Today they’re plastic instead of wood, and the wax tamper-seal is a numbered zip-tag.

The law states: “Every ballot box shall be so constructed that the ballot papers can be put in it, but cannot be withdrawn from it, without the box being unlocked.” All voting in the UK is coordinated by local authorities, and it is the responsibility of local returning officers to make sure ballot boxes are procured. The Electoral Commission, which oversees elections, advises authorities on how to move, store and even open the boxes, but there is little advice on what they should look like. As a result, there are firms that sell ballot boxes alongside other election supplies.

One such firm offers local authorities the whole package, including presiding officers’ sundries packs, election-specific forms, envelopes and posters (all compliant with current legislation), signage, voting screens, ballot boxes, items of stationery and booklets for the guidance of both candidates and administrators.

 

Stolen votes

Before 2015’s election, more than 200,000 blank ballot papers went missing after the van they were in was stolen. Police officers said at the time there was no evidence the van had been taken for its contents, but processes were put in place to ensure the papers couldn’t be cast as votes.

Historic moments

From Nelson Mandela to pictures of armed men standing next to transparent ballot boxes during a referendum held by Ukrainian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk in 2014, some of history’s most iconic photos have featured people casting their vote into a ballot box.

Advantage France

France introduced the secret ballot in 1795. Napoleon III tried to reintroduce public voting in the 1851 plebiscite, but backed down after facing strong opposition.

Fraud worries

While ballot stuffing (putting more than one vote in the box) is an issue, at least you can’t hack a ballot box. A major concern during the last US election was how secure electronic voting systems were. In the end there was no evidence of foul play, despite the hack of Democratic Party emails and the use of antiquated machines.

Say it with ceramic

It is thought that paper ballots were first used by the Romans in 139 BCE, but it is unclear whether they actually used a box. Ancient Greeks, when looking to ostracise individuals who might be a threat to the city-state of Athens, would cast votes on broken bits of pottery.

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