How People Voted in Ancient Elections

Citizens of modern democracies have used a variety of methods and technologies to vote on election day, but how did people participate in elections in ancient times? Historians have collected intriguing details about Athens, the first and only direct democracy, and the Roman Republic, a quasi-democracy where the wealthier classes wielded more influence than the workers.

In Athens as in Rome, participation in the democratic process (the Greek word democracy means “power of the people”) was limited to the demos, who were free male citizens. Women and slaves did not have the right to vote.

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Representatives chosen by Randomizing Machine

There were very few elections in Athens because ancient Athenians did not believe elections were the most democratic way to choose leaders, says Eric Robinson, a history professor at Indiana University and editor of Ancient Greek democracies: readings and sources. “For a democracy to give full power to the people to run things, and not just to the rich, it had to pick people at random.”

To decide who would sit on the Council of 500, Athens’ main governing body, the Athenians used a system known as triage. There were 10 tribes in Athens and each tribe was responsible for providing 50 citizens to serve for one year in the Council of 500.

Each eligible citizen received a personalized token and these tokens were inserted into a special machine called a kleroter which used long-lost technology (involving tubes and balls) to randomly select each tribe’s contribution to the council.

WATCH: Ancient Greece on HISTORY Vault

In the Assembly: one man, one vote

In Athens, all laws and judicial affairs were decided by the Assembly (ekklesia), a massive democratic body in which every male citizen had a say. Of Athens’ 30,000–60,000 citizens, about 6,000 regularly attended and participated in Assembly meetings.

The Assembly met in a natural hilltop amphitheater called Pnyxwhich is derived from a Greek word meaning “tight together”, and could hold between 6,000 and 13,000 people.

“The Greeks didn’t have elections in the sense that we think of them, where you vote by mail or go to a school or a church to drop off the ballot,” says Del Dickson, a professor of political science at the University of San. Diego and author of Popular government: an introduction to democracy. “You had to be physically present. This is where we get the word republic (res publica is Latin for ‘a public place’). You will meet with other citizens and decide the issues before the Assembly that day.

The Assembly’s daily agenda was set by the Council of 500, but then all government laws and policies were put to a vote. Voting was done by a show of hands and the winner was determined by nine “presidents” (prohedral). The Athenians were very careful to avoid any possibility of cheating the system.

“For example, the nine tellers were randomly selected the morning just before the Assembly meeting, so it would be very difficult to bribe them,” Robinson says.

There were a few positions in Athens that were elected by the Assembly, the most important being military generals. Each year, 10 generals were elected by a simple positive or negative vote by the Plenary Assembly.

Stones used as secret ballots

In addition to passing laws, the Assembly rendered verdicts in all criminal and civil trials in Athens. Instead of a 12-person jury, Athenian juries had between 200 and 5,000 people, Dickson says. Additionally, a member of the jury was randomly selected to serve as judge, not to have the final say, but to ensure that rules and procedures were followed.

While other types of voting were done in public, Athenian juries voted using a special type of secret ballot involving stones.

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As Robinson explains, each juror was given two small stones, one solid and one with a hole in the middle. When it was time to vote, the juror approached two ballot boxes. He dropped the stone with his actual verdict into the first urn and threw the unused stone into the second urn. No one watching could tell who was who.

The Ancient Greek word for a small stone or pebble is psephos and survives in English as “psephology”, the statistical study of elections and voting habits.

Special elections for ostracism and exile

Pottery shards used as ballot papers in ancient Greece.

Ostraka were pottery shards used as ballot papers in Athens.

In Athens, if a public figure was disgraced or simply became too popular for the sake of democracy, they could be exiled for 10 years through a special “ostracism” election, a word derived from ostracathe ancient Greek word for a potsherd.

In an election for ostracism, each member of the Assembly would be presented with a small piece of pottery and asked to cross out the name of someone who deserved to be exiled. “If at least 6,000 people wrote the same name, the person with the most votes was kicked out of Athens for 10 years,” says Dickson.

A famous example is Themistokles, an Athenian military hero from the battle of Salamis against the Persians, who was ostracized in 472 BC and died in exile. There is evidence that political enemies of Themistokles pre-engraved his name on hundreds or thousands of potsherds and distributed them to illiterate members of the Assembly.

In Sparta, an ancient “Applause-o-Meter”

Athens was the largest and most powerful of the ancient Greek city-states, but each municipality practiced its own form of voting and elections, says Robinson, who wrote a book called Democracy beyond Athens.

An example is Sparta, which was not a democracy, but included democratic elements. One of Sparta’s highest governing bodies was the Council of Elders (gerousia), which consisted of two Spartan kings and 28 elect, all over the age of 60, who would hold office for life.

“To fill the empty seats, the Spartans held a particular style of shouting the election,” also known as the acclamation vote, Robinson says. “Each candidate took turns walking through a large meeting room, and people were shouting and cheering their approval. In another room, out of sight, the judges compared the volume of the cries to decide the winners.

Roman elections gave the “prerogative” to the wealthy

The Roman Republic took on some of the principles of Athenian democracy, but divided the electorate by class and created a system that favored the wealthy, Dickson says.

Instead of voting in one giant assembly like Athens, the Romans had three assemblies. The first was called the Assembly of the Centuriate, and this body elected the highest offices in Rome, including consuls, praetors, and censors, and was the assembly responsible for declaring war.

Voting in the Centuriate Assembly began with the wealthiest class and the counting of votes stopped as soon as the majority of the 193 members of the body was reached. So if all the wealthy wanted a bill passed or a particular consul elected, they could vote en bloc and weed out the lower classes. In Latin, the privilege of voting first was called prerogative (translated as “to ask for one opinion before another”) and is the root of the English word prerogative.

In the other two Roman assemblies, the Tribal Assembly and the Plebeian Council, the order of votes was determined by lot. The “tribes” in Athens and Rome were not based on blood or ethnicity, but on the geographic region where you lived. In this way, the Tribal Assembly functioned similarly to the United States Senate, where each state has equal representation.

Secret ballots and campaigning in the Roman Republic

Some aspects of elections in the Roman Republic are still present today. Voting in assemblies began as the Athenian pattern, with each member of the assembly raising their hand and voting publicly. But over time, it became clear that wealthy “sponsors” were pressuring members of the Roman assembly to vote a certain way, so the vote had to be done in secret.

In 139 BC, Rome introduced a new type of secret ballot. “It was a wooden tablet with a sheet of wax on the outside,” says Robinson. “You write your vote on the sheet of wax, then drop the entire tablet into an urn. The aristocracy had a little crisis over this, because they lost some of their control.

If you think campaign advertising is a recent annoyance, archaeologists have uncovered hundreds of examples of ancient campaign advertisements and political graffiti scrawled on the walls of Pompeii. As for official campaigning, Dickson says Roman job seekers were limited to a campaign season of one or two weeks, and most were done in person in the public square.

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