This month marks the 141st anniversary of the first use of the secret ballot to elect an MP, at a by-election in the Yorkshire borough of Pontefract. Before the 1872 Ballot Act, and throughout the period covered by our Victorian Commons project, MPs who faced a contest were elected in public by viva voce voting at a designated polling booth.
At its most basic the booth was little more than a table with chairs for the poll clerks, who would ask electors to confirm their identity and qualification (sometimes with an oath) before inquiring how they wished to vote, often surrounded by cheering onlookers and the agents of the candidates. The voter would state his preferences – “I vote for William Biggs and Thomas Harding” or “I give a plumper for James Gordon” – and the clerk would then mark the choices in an official poll book, based on the latest electoral register. Check clerks would keep separate tallies and hourly bulletins of the ‘state of the poll’ would usually be circulated by the candidates’ agents. Once the poll was over, enterprising publishers and local newspapers would frequently sell lists showing how each voter had polled, creating the many thousands of poll books now mined by electoral historians and genealogists alike.
A more sophisticated polling arrangement involved placing the booths under cover and erecting fences and ‘pens’ for orderly queuing. Multiple booths were common. The maximum number that could vote in any one booth was 600, and electors could be assigned to specific booths depending on where they lived or the letter of their surname. Erecting booths within the temporary hustings structure, used for the nomination speeches and declaration of the result, was one way of limiting construction costs (most of which were charged to the candidates) as well as keeping the proceedings in a more tightly managed space. Fig. 1. shows a typical hustings platform from the mid-1860s, with alphabetically arranged booths clearly advertised at the front.
This system of publicly casting votes – in full view of family, community, customers, landlords and employers – is now completely alien to our modern concept of democracy, with its emphasis on universal suffrage and personal freedom of expression. For many Victorians, however, secret voting by electors was just as objectionable as secret voting by MPs would be today, and widely deemed ‘unmanly’ and ‘unEnglish’. ‘A nasty, sneaking Yankee device’, was Lord Naas’s damning verdict, for instance. There can be no doubt that open voting facilitated voter intimidation, usually by overbearing landlords and employers, as well as creating all sorts of opportunities for bribery and back-handers. But at a time when only a fifth of the adult male population possessed the vote, public voting also enabled non-electors to exercise a ‘legitimate’ influence over their more privileged neighbours, making Victorian polls far more reflective of local opinion and ‘participatory’ than is often allowed. Hence the large numbers of non-electors, including women, present throughout most election proceedings. As one candidate put it in 1841:
The vote is public property, the elector is only a trustee, and you the non-electors have the right to scrutinise and to direct the exercise of the voter’s function.
In addition, with two votes to cast (since most constituencies elected two MPs in this period), electors found it relatively easy to satisfy both the demands of community and conscience. ‘One vote for principle and the other for interest’ was a regular refrain. ‘I always gave one vote for connection and the other I would do what I liked with’, explained one Totnes voter to an election committee in 1867.
The 1867 Reform Act altered the dynamics of this public voting system profoundly. The UK electorate expanded by 82%, changing the balance between voters and the unenfranchised while increasing the opportunities for ‘illegitimate’ influence over poorer electors. The secret ballot with its very different kind of electoral culture followed five years later.
Kathryn Rix has blogged about the first election under the 1872 Ballot Act, held at Pontefract in August 1872: http://thehistoryofparliament.wordpress.com/2013/08/15/watched-with-considerable-curiosity-the-first-secret-ballot-in-britain-15-august-1872/
For details of how to access the constituency articles being written for the 1832-68 project, please click here.
M. Crook & T. Crook, ‘Reforming Voting Practices in a Global Age: The Making and Remaking of the Modern Secret Ballot in Britain, France and the United States, c.1600–c.1950′, Past and Present (2011), ccxii. 199-237.
M. Crook & T. Crook, ‘The Advent of the Secret Ballot in Britain and France, 1789–1914: From Public Assembly to Private Compartment’, History (2007), xcii. 449–471.
B. Kinzer, The ballot question in nineteenth-century English politics (1982)
J. Mitchell, The organization of opinion: open voting in England, 1832-68 (2008)
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