Time to Ostracize the Buggers

The Greeks did it with little shards of pottery because papyrus was way too expensive. The Romans did it in groups of hundreds, with their feet. Some groups did it with little black marbles. It wasn’t done in western republics in secret until late in the middle 19th century. What’s the pertinent subject on most Americans minds these days? Voting, of course!

George Bingham painting of country men lining up to vote
The Country Election by George Caleb Bingham (1852), St. Louis Art Museum.

Can We Vote for Banishing People?

The Greeks might vote for a candidate, but they would also vote at times against them as well. They voted to exile people, such as dictators or the dictator’s family, friends, personal lawyers, or unindicted co-conspirators. But even the cheapest paper, i.e. papyrus, was super-rare and expensive, so they didn’t use paper for the ballots. Instead, they would scratch the tyrant’s name on a piece of broken pottery, called an ostraka and turn it in.

broken black pottery piece with Greek lettering
A shard of ostraka, used to ostracize petty tyrants. Photo from wikipedia, slightly modified.

Funny story–there was a respected general and political leader called Aristides, who was nicknamed “the Just” because he was, well, a pretty honorable dude, according to Herodotus. An illiterate citizen came up to Aristides, while they were practicing their ostraka scratching, and said “How do you spell Aristides?” The Honorable Dude said, “Why do you want to write down Aristides?” and the fellow said, “I’m tired of hearing him called ‘the Just.’ I’m sick of these goody-two-shoes! I want someone mean and horrible.” Or something to that effect. Of course, Aristides then wrote down his own name on the ballot.

Writing down the name of someone on the pottery shards was called ostracism. Maybe we could consider this practice using, I dunno, empty water bottles or something?

The Romans used Excel spreadsheets a lot. They divided all eligible people (men, property owners, proper skin color and all that) into 193 centuries, a model based on their armies. The centuries were ranked within by property, with cavalry equities at the top and unarmed, property-less men at the bottom. Then, they were ranked across, by class, and by junior or senior, and each executive officer then took turns to act as officer-for-the-week, although all the actions *of* that officer have to be ratified…. er, no I think maybe that was the Celts. Anyway, the Roman system held rather a lot of infrastructure, but, then, have you seen their buildings and roads? I mean, bits of their aqueducts are still standing!

box with draw slots for black and white marbles
A ballotta (ballot machine) to collect the black and white balls. Photo at Wikipedia.

Not to Be Confused with the Black and White Ball

Another voting tradition was to use colored balls. This was common for fraternal organizations and clubs, like the Masons. Members would get several colored balls and drop the ball from their closed fist into a slot. In this case, it wouldn’t require a majority of “black” balls to be exiled. You could be blackballed with two or possibly even one vote. This system has some roots back to Venice where the balls were referred to as “ballotta” meaning “a small ball used in voting,” hence the derivation of the word “ballot.”

Rome did introduce a variation of the secret ballot ~130-140 BC. Prior to that, voting was done by voice, which wasn’t particularly secret. A new set of ballot laws ordered that voters would walk down a narrow causeway, then be handed a wooden tablet that had wax on it on which they’d write the name. The narrow causeway was established because when there was a wider hallway, “poll watchers” would stand to the side and intimidate or try to bribe the voters. Curiously, while mandating a secret ballot was intending to reduce corruption, it had somewhat the opposite effect:

Candidates could no longer rely on the support of their clients or of other citizens to whom they owed favors, making canvassing [campaigning] more important. In addition, candidates could previously bribe voters by promising payment upon receiving their vote. With the secret ballot, this was no longer possible, making it necessary to bribe potential as well as actual voters. Furthermore, voters had the option of accepting bribes from every candidate and voting for the highest bidder, or voting their conscience. This made bribery a more competitive affair as candidates attempted to outbid each other, either by holding lavish games and feasts or by directly promising money to voters.

From Wikipedia

Sounds kind of familiar. In Rome, despite the attempts to improve representation through secret ballots, the country ended up in a series of civil wars anyway, which led to Julius Caesar and the replacement of the republic with a series of emperors, some of who were not so great for Rome. Though the empire did last 400 years, plus, see aqueducts.

Either Australia or Massachusetts

During most of the Middle Ages, voting wasn’t something barons, kings, tsars, and shahs were very fond of, so ballots fell out of favor. Even as late as the early 19th century, after England and other countries had various forms of parliaments, voting was still done by a show of hands or voice. The first “modern” version of secret paper ballots was used in Australia @1860. The first place in the United States to adopt this wacky novel idea was Massachusetts. Hence, using secret ballots is often called the Australian or Massachusetts method.

Before the Australian method was put in place, paper ballots with the candidates’ names were printed by partisan newspapers. (Partisan media? who’d have thunk it?) Party workers would distribute pre-filled out ballots, and voters would drop those directly in the ballot box. Presumably since the party worker knew which ballot you asked for, it made that process less secret. Around 1890, most states replaced that process with one where you marked an X next to the candidate’s name, in today’s fashion. Even when the ballot became secret, candidates could still distribute samples of pre-filled ballots, very similar to what is flooding our mailboxes today.

sample old ballot
19th century ballot from Wikimedia commons.

So, while you’re standing in line, socially distanced, waiting to get to the ballot machine or waiting in your car to drive up to that ballot box, consider that this is a slight improvement over systems from days long gone. Though I still wonder whether we could put discarded water bottles to better use.

crushed water bottle with T-R-U written on it
The ostraka for 2020? Artwork by kajmeister.

Don’t Give Up Your Right to Complain

Voting is your right to complain. If you use the government, you need to vote. That is, if you drive on the roads, eat food, take medication, live in a house or an apartment or a shack or a boat, send kids to school, pay taxes, then you use the government, and you need to vote. Whatever and however you have to do it, get it done. If you have a mail-in ballot, find your nearest drop box and drive it over before there it gets more crowded. Be sure to find out how to sign it properly and whether you need a witness. Here’s a great source at Vote. org.

If you vote in person, wear a mask. You might need to bring something to do, as your peer citizens have been exercising their democracy in droves this season, and that is heartening to watch! Then, once you’re done…

Can you work the polls? Can you drive someone to the polls who needs a ride? Can you help pay someone’s parking ticket that they got while standing in line at the polls? What can you do?

Let’s do this thing! Let’s Ostraka these __rs out!