February 17, 2001

In his recent book The Right to Vote Alexander Keyssar includes a brief summary of the Australian ballot, introduced there in 1856. What made this voting mechanism unique was the fact it was a secret vote. No one but yourself would know who you had voted for, unless you chose to tell them. England adopted the method in 1872; it was introduced into the U. S. in 1888, in Louisville, Kentucky, and soon became the standard for the rest of the United States. The idea, of course, was to prevent intimidation and corruption. The origins of the idea however, go back to a time long before the first British convict set foot on the shores of Australia.

Voting day! Our chance to make our voices heard. There are no chads or punch holes. We are handed two ballots, shaped like a child's top. Each has a shaft protruding from it. One shaft is hollow; the other is solid. Each one has it's own assigned meaning. Yes or No. Candidate A or Candidate B. Life or Death. We step up to a container and drop one of the ballots in, holding it by the shaft so no one can see whether it's solid or hollow. We are in the agora, or gathering place, in Athens. It's the 4th century B. C. Democracy is taking its first toddling steps - and we are there.

If we stand at the Alter of the Twelve Gods, at the exact center of the agora, and face to the southeast, we see the Acropolis towering overhead. A straight race track stretches off to our right. Low single-story buildings surround the perimeter of the area, the civic center of the city - law courts, a mint, assembly halls for the executive committee and for the senate, a military headquarters. There are taverns and shops, one of the latter belonging to - I'm not making this up - Simon the Cobbler. After you've voted and then picked up your mended sandals from Simon, the rest of the day stretches out before you like that nearby racetrack, long and sun-baked. If you're feeling lucky and there's a race on, you can watch and bet as the chariots roar past and their riders jump on and off while wearing full body armor. A religious procession might be passing through, headed for the temples up near the Parthenon. Perhaps you'd just lie to sit in front of the tavern, a half-drained wine cup in your hand. Or saunter over to the public notice board and get all the latest news. This is the place to meet and greet, wine and dine, see and be seen - a Classical chat room. And there's often more than just idle gossip, especially when that gadfly Socrates is around, which is most of the time. He practically lives here. And one day he will die here, when the ballot shafts are against him.

And the time will come when the agora itself will die. Athens will grow, her center will shift, waves of conquerors will sweep over her. Plundering men and nations such as Sparta, Alexander the Great, Rome, and Lord Elgin, will change her face. The public buildings will crumble and one day the agora will become a trash-strewn field of rubble. It will heap up, layer upon layer, until Greece forgets just exactly where it was. Tenement houses will be built on the site and fill with swarms of the city's poor. No more races will be run here, no philosophers will stroll the sun-strewn pathways, no more votes will be cast. The agora sleeps, buried beneath centuries of history. It will be a long, long sleep. But not an endless one. We'll return in a week.

For Classical 91.5 and 90-point-3, this is David Minor


Alexander Keyssar - The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States (New York, Basic Books, 2000)

John Fleischman - "In Classical Athens a market trading in the currency of ideas", Smithsonian, July 1993

Robert W. Stock - "Sorates Spoke Here", New York Times, March 18, 1984



Forget those punch ballots and hanging chads (I think we'd all like to). We'll go where democracy began. To explore the ancient agora, or marketplace, in Athens, Greece, check out http://www.culture.gr/maps/sterea.attiki/athens.html and take an illustrated tour of the restored ruins next to the acropolis. Then you can view some of the restorations and additions carried out by Roman engineers and the early Christians. The main index will also list the many museums of this Greek capital, including the agora's own museum. Other links will help you explore the city's many institutions and treasures. All of it can be found by using the main page's sensitive map. Click a map number and check out the neighborhood. It's almost like being there and much cheaper. And if you're really, really adventursome, click on the flag icon and do it all in Greek.

The Game's Afoot !!
© 2001 David Minor / Eagles Byte