elections and voting

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In the Greek states voting was used in councils, assemblies, and lawcourts; appointments were made by election or by allotment (see sortition) or sometimes by a combination of the two. In Athens and elsewhere psēphisma (from psēphos, ‘voting‐stone’) became the standard word for a decree of the council (boule) or assembly (ekklesia), and cheirotonia (‘raising hands’) was used for elections; but in Athens voting was normally by show of hands (not precisely counted) in the council and assembly both for decrees and for elections, but by ballot in the lawcourts (See law and procedure, athenian, 4). Ballots seem first to have been used when a count was necessary to check that a quorum had been achieved. The mechanics of ostracism will have alerted Athenians to the possibility of secret voting. In Sparta voting by acclamation survived to the Classical period for elections and for decrees of the assembly.


At Rome adult male citizens had the right to vote to elect the annual magistrates, to make laws, to declare war and peace, and, until the development of the public courts in the late republic, to try citizens on serious charges. But matters were never decided by a simple majority. Votes were always cast in assigned groups, so that a majority of individual votes decided the vote of each group, and a majority of groups decided the vote of the assembly as a whole. The three groupings of the cūriae (curia 1), centuries (centuria), and tribes (tribus) made up the different types of comitia.

In the two important comitia the procedures for voting were similar. Cicero noted that Romans considered matters and voted standing up, whereas the Greeks sat down. The vote was preceded by a contio, a public meeting, to present the issues or the candidates involved. The presiding magistrate dissolved it by commanding the citizens to disperse into the areas roped off for each group. From their enclosures the groups of citizens proceeded, when called, across raised gangways, erected at the site of the assembly. Originally each voter was asked orally for his vote by one of the officials, who put a mark against the appropriate name or decision on his official tablet. From 139 to 107bc a series of four laws introduced the secret ballot. Now the voter was handed a small boxwood tablet covered in wax on which he recorded his vote with a stylus. In most cases a single letter was sufficient: in legislation, V for assent (utī rogās, ‘as you ask’) and A for dissent (antīquō, ‘status quo’); in judicial cases L for acquittal (līberō) and C for condemnation (condemnō); in elections the voter was expected to write the names for himself (Porcius Cato 2 is said to have rejected many votes clearly written in the same hand). The completed tablet was then dropped into a voting‐urn under the control of guardians, who forwarded it to the sorters. In the comitia centuriāta people voted successively, class by class, and the results were announced as they went along. In the comitia tribūta successive voting was used in legislative and judicial assemblies, but simultaneous voting probably in elections. This may explain why legislative assemblies regularly took place in a variety of places, some quite restricted, such as the forum Romanum, Capitol, and Circus Flaminius (see circus), while the large spaces of the Campus Martius were needed for elections. It was here that Caesar planned a huge building, the Julian Enclosures (Saepta Iulia), to house the electoral process. The project was continued by Aemilius Lepidus 2 and completed in 26 bc under Augustus by Vipsanius Agrippa.


Subjects: Classical Studies.

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