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Voting Practices

There is a direct relationship between the size of an electorate and the formalization and standardization of its voting practices. In very small voting groups, in which political encounters are face-to-face and the members are bound together by ties of friendship or common experience, political discussion is mostly informal and may not even require formal voting, because the “sense of the meeting” emerges from the group’s deliberations. An issue is discussed until a solution emerges to which all participants can agree or, at least, from which any one participant will not dissent.

By contrast, in modern mass electorates, in which millions of individual votes are aggregated into a collective choice, formalization and standardization of voting practices and vote counting are required to ensure that the outcome is valid, reliable, and legitimate. Validity means that the collective choice in fact expresses the will of the electorate; reliability refers to each vote’s being accurately recorded and effectively counted; and legitimacy means that the criteria of validity and reliability have been met, so that the result of the voting is acceptable and provides authoritative guidelines in subsequent political conduct. In some countries that hold elections, observers have reported irregularities in the counting of votes and have questioned the legitimacy of the results. For example, one study of the U.S. presidential election of 2000 found that millions of votes were uncounted as a result of outdated election equipment, registration errors, and other problems, which led some critics to argue that the outcome was illegitimate.

Routinized and standardized electoral practices in mass electorates were developed beginning in the mid 19th century. Their development was as much a corollary of the growth of rapid communication through telephone and telegraph as of the growth of the electorate and rational insistence on making electoral processes fair and equitable. Nevertheless, electoral practices around the world differ a great deal, depending not just on formal institutional arrangements but even more on a country’s political culture.

Secret voting

Once suffrage rights had been extended to masses of voters who, in theory, were assumed to be equal, open voting was no longer tolerable, precisely because it could and often did involve undue influence, ranging from hidden persuasion and bribery to intimidation, coercion, and punishment. Equality, at least in voting, was not something given but something that had to be engineered; the secrecy of the vote was a first and necessary administrative step toward the one person, one vote principle. Equality in voting was possible only if each vote was formally independent of every other vote, and this suggested the need for strict secrecy.

Often called the Australian ballot because of its use in the Australian states of Victoria and South Australia, secret voting gradually was adopted as the norm. Its eventual adoption was largely due to increased literacy and, at the cultural level, to the spread of individualistic norms of privacy and anonymity to certain classes of the population, notably peasants and workers. Traditionally, these groups took their cues from those they accepted as superiors, or from their peers. Secret voting required learning to free oneself as a citizen from customary associations and from pressures for conformity. Even in the contemporary world, developing countries with low literacy rates and with strong ties to tradition were slow to adopt secret voting.

Secret voting dramatically reduces the possibility of undue influence on the voter. Without it, influence can range from the outright purchase of votes to social chastisement or economic sanctions. Although laws exist in most countries to prohibit and punish the purchase or sale of votes, the introduction of secret voting has not wholly eliminated bribery.

Informal social pressures on the voter are probably unavoidable and, in some respects, useful in reducing political rootlessness and contributing to political stability. However, secrecy in voting permits voters to break away from their social moorings and gives them a considerable degree of independence if they wish to take advantage of this electoral freedom. As a result, it becomes ever more difficult for interest groups—whether labour unions, farmers’ organizations, commercial or industrial associations, ethnic leadership groups, or even criminal syndicates—to “deliver the vote.” The extent to which “deviant voting” occurs depends partly on the degree of rigidity in the social structure. In countries where caste or class barriers are strong or where traditional social, economic, religious, or regional cleavages remain in place, deviant voting is less likely than in countries where there is significant social mobility and where political conflicts cut across traditional social cleavages.


The ballot makes secret voting possible. Its initial use seems to have been as a means to reduce irregularities and deception in elections. However, this objective could be achieved only if the ballot was not supplied by the voter himself, as was the case in much early voting by secret ballot, or by political parties, as is still the case in some countries. Ballot procedures differ widely, ranging from marking the names of preferred candidates to crossing out those not preferred or writing in the names of persons who are not formal candidates. Some ballots require the selection of one or more candidates or parties or both, and others require the preferential ordering of a number of candidates.

It is generally believed that the nature of the ballot influences a voter’s choice. In jurisdictions where electors are called upon to vote not only for higher offices but also for a multitude of local positions and where the election may include propositions in the nature of referenda, the length of the ballot can affect the results. Overwhelmed by a ballot’s length, voters may be discouraged from expressing their preferences for candidates of whom they have not heard, or from deciding on propositions that they do not understand. For example, in some U.S. jurisdictions, participation is often lower in contests for county coroners, tax assessors, and other local positions for which there is often little coverage in the media. Election data show a rapid decline from votes cast for higher offices to those cast for lower offices and referendum-type propositions, a phenomenon referred to as ballot roll-off.

Ballot position also has an effect on the votes cast for particular candidates, especially in the absence of cues as to party affiliation or other identifications. The first position on the ballot may be favoured, and on long ballots both first and last names may benefit, with candidates in the middle of the ballot suffering slightly. Ballot position is likely to have its greatest impact in nonpartisan elections, primaries, and elections for minor offices.

The manner in which candidates are listed—by party column or by office bloc—is likely to affect election outcomes. On party-column ballots, it is possible to vote a “straight ticket” for all of a party’s candidates by entering a single mark, though voting for individual candidates is usually possible. Conversely, on the office-bloc ballot, voters choose individual candidates grouped by office rather than party, which discourages voting exclusively for members of one party, though some jurisdictions that use the office-bloc ballot allow voters to cast a straight ticket.

Electoral results also can be dramatically affected when some voters find the ballot difficult to use or understand. Indeed, a study in the U.S. state of Florida found that an allegedly confusing ballot design in one county and improperly punched ballots across the state may well have been critical to the overall outcome of the national presidential election in 2000. The analysis, which highlighted the problems associated with various voting methods and the disparate distribution of voting technologies according to socioeconomic status (i.e., wealthier areas generally had more advanced technology and fewer invalidated ballots), spurred extensive debate about election reform.

The type of ballot can have important consequences for the operation of government, especially in systems with separated powers and federal territorial organization. If different offices are controlled by different parties, the governmental process may be marked by greater conflict than would otherwise be the case.

The introduction of voting machines and computer technology has not substantially changed the balloting process, though it generally has made it faster and more economical. Voting machines are not without problems, in that they may marginally depress the level of voting owing to improper use, a problem that can be overcome through improved machines and voter education.

Compulsory voting

In some countries, notably Australia and Belgium, electoral participation is legally required, and nonvoters can face fines. The concept of compulsory voting reflects a strain in democratic theory in which voting is considered not merely a right but a duty. Its purpose is to ensure the electoral equality of all social groups. However, whether created through laws or through social pressure, it is doubtful that high voter turnout is a good indication of an electorate’s capability for intelligent social choice. On the other hand, high rates of abstention or differential rates of abstention by different social classes are not necessarily signs of satisfaction with governmental processes and policies and in fact may indicate the contrary.

Electoral abuses

Corrupt electoral practices are not limited to bribery or voter intimidation. They include disseminating scurrilous rumours and false campaign propaganda, tampering with election machinery by stuffing ballot boxes with fraudulent returns, counting or reporting the vote dishonestly, and disregarding electoral outcomes by incumbent officeholders (e.g., by mobilizing the military to thwart an election loss). The existence of these practices depends more on a population’s adherence to political civility and the democratic ethos than on legal prohibitions and sanctions.

The integrity of the electoral process can be maintained by a variety of devices and practices, including a permanent and up-to-date register of voters and procedures designed to make the registration process as simple as possible. In most jurisdictions elections are held on a single day rather than on staggered days. Polling hours in all localities are generally the same, and opening and closing hours are fixed and announced, so that voters have an equal opportunity to participate. Polling stations are operated by presumably disinterested government officials or polling clerks under governmental supervision. Political party agents or party workers are given an opportunity to observe the polling process, which enables them to challenge irregularities and prevent abuses. Efforts are made to maintain order in polling stations, directly through police protection or indirectly through such practices as closing bars and liquor stores. The act of voting itself takes place in voting booths to protect privacy. Votes are counted and often recounted by tellers, who are watched by party workers to ensure an honest count. The transmission of voting results from local polling stations to central election headquarters is safeguarded and checked.