a means of expressing an individual choice for a public or other officer, or a measure of public importance; the medium through which a voter indicates his preference at an election.
The term ballot, at a club or private election, is applied to a ball used for the purposes of voting. In casting a ball for or against an individual, the arrangement sometimes is that if the vote be designed in his favor, then a white ball is used, but if it be intended to be against him, then one of a black color is used -- whence the phrase "to blackball one." Other methods, however, may be adopted; thus, a ball of any color put through a hole in one drawer may indicate a favorable vote, and into another an unfavorable one.
The ballot, as a political institution, is known from early times, having been made use of in ancient Greece and Rome. At Athens, the verdicts given in the courts by the dicasts were indicated by balls of stone or metal, black or pierced balls indicating condemnation, while white or unpierced meant acquittal.
When the measure called ostracism was resorted to, the votes were given by means of shells, on which the voters wrote the name of the citizen whom they wished banished. The method known as petalism was employed at Syracuse, the voters using olive leaves as ballots. At Rome the ballot was introduced in the election of magistrates in 139 B. C., and subsequently in trials and legislation, the people voting at first viva voce, but later writing upon tablets the names of their candidates. In the republic of Venice a system of voting by ballot prevailed for many centuries.
In the United States it was in use in early colonial times; in France it has been in operation in elections since 1851; and in several of the Australian colonies since 1855.
Entry from Everybody's Cyclopedia, 1912.