Those of you who study history must hate it as much as I do when you read that such and such is true, the information is well cited, and so you accept it--and then later, maybe even years later, you read something totally contradictory.
That happened to me recently. I'm reading Gordon Wood's massive The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, first published in 1969. Here's what Wood has to say on page 170 about secret ballots during the Revolutionary Period:
"The North Carolina, Georgia, Vermont, and Pennsylvania constitutions and some counties in New Jersey provided for elections by secret ballot (which had been used sporadically throughout the colonies in the previous decades) so that no elector would have 'occasion to recur to any man for advice or assistance.'"
I knew that wasn't what I'd read somewhere else. And it only took me a few minutes of perusing my bookshelves to find the source of my belief that we didn't have secret ballots in this country until much, much later. From pages 142-143 of The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States (2000) by Alexander Keyssar:
"An indirect and limited means of promoting a literate electorate was the adoption of the secret or Australian ballot (which first appeared in Australia in 1856 and then was implemented in England in 1872)... The first American experiment with the Australian ballot, in Louisville in 1888, was rapidly followed by its adoption almost everywhere in the United States."
Wood has four states and parts of a fifth using secret ballots in elections not only more than a century before Keyssar says the practice had its first American incarnation in Louisville, but seventy-five years before Keyssar declares the Australians invented the secret ballot.
I'd believe either of these two scholarly tomes over wikipedia; nevertheless I checked that website's entry on secret ballot to see what it says. No help; they say that secret ballots were known in ancient Greece and that the first secret ballot in America was used in Lexington, Massachusetts. No date is given for that.
My first thought was that Wood's information must be the correct account. After all, in citation of his assertion that there was a secret ballot in eighteenth century Pennsylvania he refers to Section 32 of the state's 1776 constitution, for Georgia he cites Article X of the 1777 constitution, etc. Those are primary sources from the early days of the republic. Keyssar cites a boatload of secondary sources plus a couple of primary ones, but his primary sources are from much later than Wood's. For instance, Keyssar points to the 1896 Annotated Statutes of Illinois.
But then I realized there was an additional possibility. Perhaps Wood and Keyssar meant different things by "secret ballot." The wikipedia entry refers to this article from The Canberra Times, an Australian newspaper. It defines the Australian ballot as being more than just the voter putting a piece of paper anonymously into a ballot box, which it acknowledges had already been practiced by the Americans and the French. The article asserts that the Australian innovation, widely copied, was that the piece of paper dropped into the ballot box was printed by the government and had the names of all the candidates. "Until then" declares the article, "all modes of paper voting involved the elector supplying his own ballot-paper (or getting it from a third party)."
And so I went back and reread what Keyssar wrote, and I realized that's what we're dealing with here. In the excerpt above I've got ellipses; here is what Professor Keyssar wrote between those marks:
"For much of the nineteenth century, voters had obtained their ballots from political parties: since the ballots generally contained only the names of an individual party's candidates, literacy was not required. All that a man had to do was drop a ballot in a box. Since ballots tended to be of different sizes, shapes, and colors, a man's vote was hardly a secret--to election officials, party bosses, employers, or anyone else watching the polls."
In the early days of the republic, voting was often anything but secret, because the voter had to orally cast a ballot in the presence of the local magistrate, with scores of other folks within earshot (see Simon, What Kind of Nation, 2002, pp. 81-83 for an entertaining account of the 1799 congressional election in Virginia, won by future U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall). So in that sense, Gordon Wood is apparently using the phrase "secret ballot" to mean the practice, picking up steam in the late eighteenth century, of using written ballots instead of announcing one's choice. Alexander Keyssar, on the other hand, is reserving the phrase "secret ballot" for the later development of a ballot that was not simply written, but provided for the voter by the government. No more "electors supplying their own ballot-paper or getting it from a third party," in other words.
Well that's confusing, having two different definitions for secret ballot. It's like "civil law" meaning either that which isn't criminal law, or alternatively meaning the legal system that Napoleon endorsed, and you need to pay attention to the context to know what is being referenced. Personally, I prefer Wood's use of the phrase, because it just seems to me that more people think of a secret ballot as involving not calling out your vote as opposed to the particular characteristics of the paper that gets shoved into the ballot box. (I say that knowing full well that most voting is computerized now, making oral votes and ballot boxes both seem quaint.)
Or maybe I'm wrong and when most of you hear "secret ballot" you think of a disinterested government printing the lists of candidates. Whatever, I still think it's confusing, and for my own purposes I'm going to try never to say or write "secret ballot" again. But what words would I use in its place? How about "Wood Ballot" and "Keyssar Ballot" as replacement phrases, thus emphasizing the distinction between the two? Or use "Australian Ballot" for the government-provided cards and reserve "secret ballot" to mean not having to voice your choice?
Those are possibilities. But then what will we call it when we learn how to vote through mental telepathy?