A British election campaign leaflet with an illustration of an example ballot paper, 1880
Elections were used as early in history as ancient Greece and ancient Rome, and throughout the Medieval period to select rulers such as the Holy Roman Emperor (see imperial election) and the pope (see papal election).
In Vedic period of India, the Raja (chiefs) of a gana (a tribal organization) was apparently elected by the gana. The Raja belonged to the noble Kshatriya varna (warrior class), and was typically a son of the previous Raja. However, the gana members had the final say in his elections. Even during the Sangam Period people elected their representatives by casting their votes and the ballot boxes (Usually a pot) were tied by rope and sealed. After the election the votes were taken out and counted. The Pala King Gopala (ruled c. 750s–770s CE) in early medieval Bengal was elected by a group of feudal chieftains. Such elections were quite common in contemporary societies of the region. In the Chola Empire, around 920 CE, in Uthiramerur (in present-day Tamil Nadu), palm leaves were used for selecting the village committee members. The leaves, with candidate names written on them, were put inside a mud pot. To select the committee members, a young boy was asked to take out as many leaves as the number of positions available. This was known as the Kudavolai system.
The modern "election", which consists of public elections of government officials, didn't emerge until the beginning of the 17th century when the idea of representative government took hold in North America and Europe.
Questions of suffrage, especially suffrage for minority groups, have dominated the history of elections. Males, the dominant cultural group in North America and Europe, often dominated the electorate and continue to do so in many countries. Early elections in countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States were dominated by landed or ruling class males. However, by 1920 all Western European and North American democracies had universal adult male suffrage (except Switzerland) and many countries began to consider women's suffrage. Despite legally mandated universal suffrage for adult males, political barriers were sometimes erected to prevent fair access to elections (see civil rights movement).