Ballot and ballottaggio

The interior of the Sala Maggior Consiglio - painting by Joseph Heintz the Younger

Voters in the USA don’t get a voting slip to express their vote. They get a ballot.

The reason for this is very simple. When the founding fathers of the United States of America looked around to see how to do the practicalities of elections, they didn’t have a lot of places to look at. Most European states were monarchies and didn’t really do elections or votes.

Venice was the most important exception. The aristocratic electorate of the Republic of Venice, gathered in the Consiglio Maggiore, or Greater Council, would regularly cast votes on important matters of state.


The Consiglio Maggiore met in the largest hall of the Palazzo Ducale, but for voting they used the neighbouring hall, called the Sala dello Scrutinio (literally the vote counting hall).

The more than two thousand members of the Consiglio Maggiore filed from the meeting hall (Sala del Consiglio Maggiore) into the adjacent voting hall. Entering they each got two small balls, called balote, of different colour. They could be gold and silver, or black and white.

At the next table they would drop one of the two balote into a large vase. The colour of the ball represented the ayes and the noes.

Once the Sala del Consiglio Maggiore was empty, a blindfolded boy chosen at random in the piazza below the palace, extracted the balote from the vase, one at a time, in front of the vote counters.

The name of the vote counting hall, the Sala dello Scrutinio, refers to how the vote counters scrutinised the balote as the child pulled them out of the vase.

Ballot / Ballottage

When the citizens of the thirteen former British colonies in North America started voting for their representatives, the terminology was copied from the best known and most important republic in Europe: Venice.

That is why the voters on the USA are presented with a ballot, and not with a voting slip or whatever else you might call that piece of paper.

The same thing happened in republican France after the French revolution. They too needed a word to describe the new procedures, so they have ballottage.

Back in Venice

In the 1200s the Venetian balote were of wax, but it caused problems. They could stick together or remain attached to the inside of the vase.

They therefore decided to make the balote of linen instead.

In 1421 the nuns of San Girolamo received 100 ducats for the production of balote to the Consiglio Maggiore. They received another 50 ducats in 1481.

Otherwise the ballot makers lived in the aptly named Calle de le Ballotte not far from St Mark’s.


Tassini, Giuseppe. Curiosità Veneziane ovvero Origini delle denominazioni stradali di Venezia. 1863.

More about Venetian words

Venetian words that are still in common use include arsenal, ballot, ciao, ghetto, lazzaretto, and quarantine.

2 responses to “Ballot and ballottaggio”

  1. Kære Rene
    Jeg er begejstet og taknemmelig for din sidste epistel.
    Som sprogmand ‘thumps up’
    Mogens Pind

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