The Wikipedia article on the 1788 Presidential election says that people voted with ballots, where a public vote was actually conducted.

In Britain, voting for MPs was done by public meetings. Ballots weren't used until the 1870s.

Did elections in colonial America always used ballots? Or when did they change, and why?

  • 1
    That is interesting. I'd always understood that the "Australian Ballot" (or "Secret Ballot") wasn't introduced in the US until the 1884 Presidential election. I suspect it may mean a public ballot - "until the 1800s, as voters would sign their names under one candidate’s name or another’s on a public ballot." Commented Jan 20, 2018 at 17:49
  • Yeah, it does mean public ballot. However, British elections didn't use any kind of ballot at the time.
    – Ne Mo
    Commented Jan 20, 2018 at 17:54
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    They had poll books which amounted to much the same thing in practice. Commented Jan 20, 2018 at 17:58

1 Answer 1


Voting in the 1788 Presidential election seems to have been carried out by public ballot, although some states continued to use an oral ballot until the late nineteenth century (e.g. Kentucky, which continued to use an oral ballot until 1891).

Secret ballots, also known as "Australian Ballots" were introduced to the United States in the nineteenth century, but were only extensively adopted after the 1884 Presidential election.

Secret ballots system were introduced in the United Kingdom by the Ballot Act of 1872. Prior to that, a public ballot system had been in use with the votes cast by individuals recorded in Poll Books. These poll books had been introduced by an Act of Parliament in 1696

"to stop electoral fraud and were the responsibility of the local Sheriffs".

  • Poll books - University of Reading Special Collections

There is an interesting article, Public Voting: Before the Secret Ballot, from The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia. It discusses the various methods of voting used in the United States before the secret ballot was adopted in the later nineteenth century.

  • I'm a bit suspicious of this. The Results only report votes for the other candidate in 3 of the 6 states that held a vote. I'd find it unlikely that nobody in those other 3 states voted for the other candidate. Interestingly, Washington's lowest % margin (of the 3) was in his home state of Virginia. It was still greater than a 40 point margin there.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jan 22, 2018 at 2:15
  • @T.E.D. Which bit are you suspicious about? Commented Jan 22, 2018 at 2:18
  • Well, I'd say either they decided not to report any of the votes against for some weird reason (hey, they were new at this, right?), or they were using a method that was very different than those other 3 states.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jan 22, 2018 at 2:22
  • This kind of goes back to that "unanimous voting question" that someone bumped today. Is it really credible that eg: 17,740 voters in Massachusetts had the ability to vote for more than one choice, yet they all voted for the same one? When the guy's own state voted 30% against him? Something was very different between those two votes.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jan 22, 2018 at 2:26
  • @T.E.D. Maybe they only recorded the vote-count of the winning candidate in those states. Like you say, they were doing it for the first time and learning the rules as they went along. Commented Jan 22, 2018 at 2:27

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