‘Damn the secret ballot’: the UK’s public voting system before 1872

This online event was recorded and can be viewed here.

As we approach next week’s online event celebrating the 150th anniversary of the act which introduced the secret ballot for municipal and parliamentary elections, it’s perhaps worth looking again at how the public voting system that served Britain for so many centuries worked. We’ve touched on public voting in earlier posts, but our ongoing research on Victorian politics continues to throw up new discoveries.

An election chairing scene

Public or ‘open’ voting is often associated with the most glaring iniquities of Victorian elections, including the consumption of vast amounts of alcohol, violence and the harassment of electors at the poll, as well as bribery and the intimidation of voters by employers and landlords. In parliamentary elections voters declared their choices orally, stating how they wished to vote in front of election officials and assembled spectators, so that everyone knew immediately what their choices were. Running tallies of how well candidates were doing provided a live form of race-like entertainment, while also allowing agents to bring up or hold back ‘tallies’ of electors, along with all sorts of other nefarious tactics, such as kidnapping voters.

Other types of election, however, such as those held for town council polls after 1835, simply required the elector to sign and hand in a voting paper. These ballots have a modern appearance but the fact that they still exist, of course, illustrates the key difference with today’s practice: they were not kept secret. In some types of parish election it was even possible for single propertied women to vote, as surviving records of some local polls show. Lists showing the way individuals voted often appeared in local newspapers. They also formed the basis of special pollbooks produced by enterprising local publishers. The fact that these books were sold for a profit illustrates just how much public interest there was in the way people had voted – especially neighbours, relatives, shopkeepers, employees and tenants.

The idea that this system only produced negative results – with tenants being threatened with eviction if they didn’t vote as their landlords directed, or electors selling their votes to the highest bidder – overlooks the many positive features associated with public voting at the time. Chief among these was accountability – the idea that the vote was a public trust or duty that should be exercised ‘in the full glare of publicity’, in order to ensure it was done honestly. As the prime minister Lord Palmerston, expressing the view of most mid-Victorian leaders, explained:

An individual is invested with the power of voting, not for his own personal advantage or interest, but for the interest and advantage of the nation … to be exercised in perfect day, and be open to the criticism of our friends and neighbours and the public at large. (Click here for the full speech)

Most early Victorian MPs agreed. Asked for his views at the 1859 election, for instance, the Berkshire MP Captain Leicester Vernon declared:

Damn the secret ballot … Give me the bold-faced Englishman who, with his hat on one side, swaggers up to the polling booth, and when the clerk says, ‘For whom do you vote?’, answers manfully and IN THE FACE OF HIS NEIGHBOURS.

Crowds of women photographed during the 1865 Hastings election

Openness was considered especially important at a time when only a limited number of people could vote. Rather than being completely excluded from the electoral process, non-electors could see and judge how everyone had polled. As a result, they were often able to play a part in trying to influence how voters behaved. Women, in particular, feature frequently in surviving canvassing books and electioneering papers, with comments like ‘wife says he will vote’ or ‘sister promised’ testifying to their role. As one MP noted during an 1867 Commons debate about giving women the vote, ‘Every one acquainted with elections was aware of the influence which was already exercised by women’. Disraeli, no stranger to electoral shenanigans, noted in his book The Election, ‘If the men have the vote, the women have the influence’.

Women, of course, were not the only type of non-elector. Working men, including all those disfranchised by the new voting restrictions of the 1832 Reform Act, also played a significant role in Victorian elections as non-electors, setting up meetings and pressure groups to influence voters and even threatening to boycott certain shopkeepers or traders, in a practice known as ‘exclusive dealing’. This was not considered as inappropriate or ‘unconstitutional’ as it might seem today. As one MP reminded a crowd of non-electors  during an 1841 campaign:

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 voters’ function.

As well as being considered ‘unmanly’, ‘unEnglish’ and unfair on anyone without a vote, secret voting also suffered a series of presentation problems in the early Victorian period. Those most in favour in Parliament – including a significant group of Radical MPs elected after the 1832 Reform Act – found themselves arguing for secrecy in elections, but at the same time pressing for the votes cast by MPs in the Commons to be made more public. The official publication of MPs’ votes from 1836 and calls for greater accountability in public life sat uncomfortably with demands for complete secrecy at the polling booth.

The leadership of the secret ballot campaign in the four decades after 1832 also didn’t help. The cause was first led by the Radical MP George Grote, whose eccentric plans for ‘secret ballot’ voting machines were a gift to satirists. His successor was the unconventional ‘political opportunist’ Francis Berkeley MP, one of three notorious brothers sitting in the Commons renowned for their family feuds, violence and bizarre political behaviour. Motions in support of the secret ballot only ever passed in ‘thin’ Houses, when most MPs were absent, and before 1868 never exceeded the number achieved on 18 June 1839, when 216 MPs voted in its support, but 333 against.

Victorian cartoon mocking a failed [secret] ballot bill

What ultimately led to secret voting being implemented in 1872 was not the success of any popular outdoors campaign in its support. Secret voting never attracted the sort of backing that the anti-corn law movement, for instance, achieved. Instead, for the sake of unity within his Liberal cabinet, Gladstone agreed to carry out a trial of the ballot, on the basis that the 1867 Reform Act, by creating so many more voters, had undermined the idea of voting as a ‘public trust’ exercised on behalf of the unenfranchised. Drawing on experiences of secret voting in Australia and recent London school board elections, the cabinet forced a temporary measure through a very reluctant Parliament. It was only the success of this experiment that eventually led to its permanent adoption.

To hear more about all this, please join our online event on 18 July 2022.

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