An article by Vincent Azoulay, professor of ancient history in the University of Paris-Est/Marne-la-Vallée, in france culture (original in French, my translation [corrections welcome]):
An electoral campaign in reverse: the ostracism
Let us start from a finding that is at first surprising. We possess no detailed record of an electoral campaign in Athens – despite it being history’s first democracy! There are multiple reasons for this: first, elections may not have necessarily been important events, being considered an aristocratic selection mechanism, being the opposite of the more egalitarian mechanism of sortition. Most importantly, when elections were held – when selecting generals, for example – they were most often if not unanimous then at least less-contentious: because it was never for selecting a single individual, a bitterly competitive affair, but a board of ten magistrates, which made the competition not as harsh.
To find the real electoral campaigns in Athens, with their maneuvers and intrigue, we have to turn to a celebrated institution, the ostracism, which may be considered as an election in reverse, as it was for politicians who would definitely not be elected!
The function of this important institution of the Athenian democracy is well known: following the reforms of Cleisthenes the Athenians put in place an exceptional measure aimed at preventing the return of tyranny. Each year, the people could decide to exile one person judged too influential for a period of ten years. The ostracism took place in two stages. In the sixth month of the year, a first vote by a show of hands decided whether the ostracism process should be initiated. If that was approved, a second vote, in secret this time, was held two months later to select the condemned. The vote took place using pottery shards (ostraka), on which the citizens wrote the name of the one they wanted to be ostracized. The person who had the most votes was then exiled, conditioned on having a quorum of at least 6,000 voters.
Ostracism appears to have been, then, a sort of a “presidential election” in reverse, with a plurality poll round and a secret ballot round, preceded by a veritable campaign taking place between the first vote (triggering the process) and the second (determining the unfortunate elect!): it is in this interval that you could forge agreements or hatch plots.
The case of Themistocles, the victorious general of the battle of Salamis in 480 against the Persians, is in the regard illuminating. He was ostracized by the Athenians in 472, after having been the object of a systematic denigration campaign. Through the detailed analysis of hundreds of shards found in the Agora, the archeologists were even able to establish that his adversaries prepared in advance dozens of shards with his name – written by the same hand – to be distributed on the day of the vote and facilitate the selection!
And the names of the birds that flew on that occasion. Indeed, the writing on some ostraka indicated not only the name of the citizen selected, but also specify the reason for their expulsion. In one of the shards found in the Agora the same Themistocles is called a “sodomite” (katapugon): far from leveling simple verbal abuse, the insult carried political weight, in that any adult citizen was forbidden, under penalty of loss of civic rights, from assuming a passive role in a homosexual relationship (which by itself is perfectly legal). Beyond the anecdote, ostracism appears to have been a way for the people to define the norms of expected behavior for those who vie for the public roles, including in sexual matters.
For this is the crucial point that we must remember here. Beyond those who are targeted by name, these electoral anti-campaigns exerted a profound influence on the political life of the city. According to Plutarch, it was because Pericles feared being ostracized, as his father had been, that he sided with the people (demos). A Sword of Damocles, the ostracism represented a constant threat hovering over prominent Athenians, incentivizing them to conform to popular expectations.
Should we institute this procedure today, resulting in the temporary exclusion of one of the contenders for presidential power? Maybe this procedure will lead to the moderation of the passions of certain candidates and the silencing of the more foolish proposals that circulate currently in these times of growing extremism.