A ballot is a device used to record choices made by voters. Each voter uses one ballot, and ballots are not shared. In the simplest elections, a ballot may be a simple scrap of paper on which each voter writes in the name of a candidate, but governmental elections use either pre-printed or electronic ballots.

Ballot design

Ballot design can aid or inhibit clarity in an election. A poor design leads to confusion and potentially chaos if large numbers of voters spoil or mismark a ballot. Some consider this a reason to stick to first past the post voting, as the simplest voting system. Others consider it a reason to adopt voting machines. Still others see the solution as better ballot design.

The so-called butterfly ballot used in Florida in the U.S. presidential election, 2000 led to widespread allegations of mismarked ballots. However, there were also minor candidates, uncounted ballots, state officials with a clear bias, and various levels of judiciary involved, so the actual fault for these events cannot be laid at the foot of the ballot.

Some political scientists prefer a more explicit statement of the voter's actual tolerances and preferences, and believe that failure to reflect these in ballot design and voting system alternatives actually causes many problems and leads for calls for electoral reform. For instance, a non-binding referendum or poll, carried out on a ballot, carries much more weight than one carried out with only a public sampling in a less politically committed event than an election. For example, one might count the number of ballots whereon the voter had crossed out the name of the political party that nominated the candidate, even if (maybe only if) that voter had voted for him or her. This would indicate support for candidates but would be able to send signals to them that the "party line" was not why that voter voted for them, but rather, s/he expected them to act independently.

Such marking and counting could be carried out on an ordinary ballot with no provision for it, however, there would be risk of counting it as "spoiled" if the marks were unclear, and if ballot design had not allowed for it initially.

As there are many controversies around e-democracy and voting machine trustworthiness, and many incidents of electoral fraud enabled by the latter, it would seem that better ballot design may be the only alternative.

See also: democracy, direct democracy, chad (paper)