A ballot is a form which is used to cast votes in an election, classically in a polling place, a central location set up for the purpose of voting. The ballot includes a list of candidates and measures being voted on, along with spaces for voters to indicate their preferences. In some regions of the world, communities have converted their balloting systems from physical paper ballots to electronic ones, for the purpose of streamlining the voting process. This change has been heavily criticized by people who are concerned about the security of electronic voting.
The word comes from Italian ballotta, a small stone used to cast a vote. Humans have been voting for thousands of years, often with the use of sticks, stones, shells, or pieces of pottery. In public elections, eligible voters would literally cast their vote by tossing a symbol into the pile for a candidate or measure that the voter supported. Over time, the public voting method evolved into a secret ballot, in which voters marked their choices on confidential forms and put their forms into a collection box for counting.
There are a number of different styles of ballot. In some countries, voters from different parties are given different ballots, for example, and many nations have a ranked choice voting system which allows voters to number the candidates by preference, rather than just voting for one. Some ballots are marked with pens, while others must be punched with the use of a special stylus. Absentee ballots are ballots which are mailed to people who cannot visit polling places in person.
Ballot design has been a contentious issue historically because it is easy to confuse voters with subtle changes in ballot design. Critics of the butterfly ballot used in Florida during the 2000 election point out that the ballot led people to mark the wrong candidates because it had a confusing design. In urban areas, the production of multilingual ballots is another major issue, because voting officials want to ensure that everyone understands the ballot.
Voters should be aware of their voting rights, and they should not be afraid to defend them. In many nations, people have the right to vote in private, commonly in a protected booth which prevents other voters from looking over the voter's shoulder. Impaired voters who need assistance can also request it from staff at a polling place; a blind voter, for example, can ask someone to mark his or her ballot. Voters should also ask for ballot receipts so that they can be assured that their votes are counted.