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The Australian Secret Ballot


Voting is a private matter, done in secret. The secret ballot method came to North Dakota in 1891. On this date that year, the Grand Forks Herald reported that the State Senate approved the “Australian election bill” in order to clean up elections. The new voting system mandated that county governments print official ballots, at public expense, with all the names of all candidates of all political parties printed on each ballot. Voters would then mark their ballots with cross-mark X’s – in secret, in a polling booth, behind a curtain.

This was a major change, advocated by the North Dakota Farmers Alliance to eliminate cheating. The old voting system, prior to 1891, was messy. County governments did not print ballots; instead, each political party printed ballots listing only their own candidates and then gave the ballots to voters, encouraging them to vote a “straight ticket.” Voters could clip a ticket from their favorite partisan newspaper – or write a ballot on a sheet of paper.

Each voter came to the polling place with ballot in hand, or he got a printed ballot from a political operative just outside the polls. A legal ballot had to be on white paper and had to contain names of the persons for whom the voter intended to vote – and it had to list the office. A citizen gave his personal ballot to the election judges, and the judges put the ballot in the ballot box.

The old system was ripe for abuse. An immigrant who did not speak English well could be given a ballot by a party operative and told to deliver it to the polling place. Some might sell their vote. Others voted more than once. Thugs, called “shoulder-strikers” or “strikers,” would threaten violence to influence voting. Some parties printed colored ballots in Dakota Territory, prior to the 1883 “white paper” ballot law, to keep track of voters and votes.

All of those potential frauds were cleansed, supposedly, when the Australian secret ballot system finally arrived in North Dakota on this date in 1891.

Today’s Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSU Moorhead.


“Bismarck Doings,” Grand Forks Herald, March 3, 1891, p. 1.

“Australian Ballot,” Grand Forks Herald, February 22, 1891, p. 1.

“The New Way of Voting,” Grand Forks Herald, November 1, 1891, p. 4.

“Capital Prize,” Grand Forks Herald, March 6, 1891, p. 1.

“The New Laws,” Grand Forks Herald, March 14, 1891, p. 2.