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The Ballot Act

60 second histories
by: Squaducation date: 18 Jul

The Ballot Act

 - July 18th 1872 - 


The foundations of electoral reform in the UK lay in the French Revolution in the last years of the 18th Century. This event led to an explosion of ideas and demands of democracy. The ruling classes in the UK were all too aware of what had occurred the other side of the English Channel and had no wish to see it repeated on home soil. The greater concentration of people in towns and cities also led to a faster spread of ideas and discontent.


Electoral reform never happens quickly however. The Reform Act of 1832 led to more people having the right to vote and abolished some ‘Rotten Boroughs’ that elected MPs that had, perhaps, just 1 voter. The ownership of land qualification required to vote still restricted most working men from voting. The Chartist movement that sprung up from this made demands that would seem utterly normal today but were quite revolutionary then. They demanded universal manhood suffrage, annual elections, pay and no property qualifications for MPs and secret ballots.


In the 1860s 1.43m people could vote out of a population of nearly 30 million. The 2nd Reform Bill of 1867 added over 900,000 new names to the electoral register – many of them working men in towns and cities. Forty-five new seats were created by taking one seat from existing constituencies which had fewer than 10,000 people. The general election of 1868 overwhelmingly voted in a new Liberal Government with William Gladstone as its Prime Minister.  Three times the number of people voted in that election. The Liberals won 387 seats to the Conservatives 271.


The question of how people voted now came into focus. The current system allowed for bribery on a massive scale, intimidation, fighting at election time and often the complete collapse of law and order. Landlords and factory owners could kick you out of your house or job if you voted the ’wrong’ way. In 1835, in Stafford, votes changed hands for £14 (£1200 in today’s values). In Beverley, Yorkshire, the Liberal candidate secured 400 votes for between £1 and £4 gaining 80% of the votes he needed. The bribes were distributed in the local library through a small hole in the door so that you could not see who was handing out the bribes. Before secret ballots you spoke to an officer behind a desk, gave your details and then specified for whom you wanted to vote. This was documented in a ‘Poll Book’ that was published and free for all to see.


The problem that existed was that the ruling class liked the status quo – they got elected – and the voters enjoyed being paid to vote. The landlords and factory bosses genuinely felt that it was quite right that they should instruct people, who they saw as ‘lesser folk’, how to vote.


After his election Gladstone said, "I have at all times given my vote in favour of open voting, but I have done so before, and I do so now, with an important reservation, namely, that whether by open voting or by whatsoever means, free voting must be secured."


Benjamin Disraeli, the leader of the Conservative Party, felt differently. "This arrangement about the ballot is part of the, same system, a system which would dislocate all the machinery of the state, and disturb and agitate the public mind." The election of 1874 proved him wrong, but ironically he was elected, largely because the Conservatives won a large number of uncontested seats. Gladstone won the majority of votes. This election also saw the first Irish Nationalists elected to become a significant party.


Gladstone tried to introduce the secret ballot in 1871. It was passed by the Commons but the Lords voted it down. Not to be put off the Bill was re-introduced the following year with the threat that another General Election would be called if they voted it down again. It was passed on 18th July 1872 to be used in Parliamentary and local elections.


The first election using the secret ballot was held in Pontefract, West Yorkshire, where Hugh Childers won the by-election. The wooden ballot box was sealed with liquorice. Many claimed that the secret ballot had taken the fun and life out of the election. That very first ballot box is now in the museum in Pontefract.


More changes were inevitably coming. What was surprising to some was that it took so long. In 1918, after the end of World War 1, it was felt that those who had fought deserved the right to vote and all men over the age of 21 and women over the age of 30 were given the vote in the Representation of the People Act. A decade later, and after a concerted campaign by the Suffragettes, a 2nd Representation of the People Act gave equality to women. In 1969 the voting age was lowered to 18 and in the 2017 election the Labour Party maintained in their manifesto that this should be lowered to 16.


With various inconsistencies appearing it is highly likely that there will be more changes to the way we elect our government. Proportional representation has been suggested. The secret ballot, although not seen so at the time, was a vital step in the direction of a true democracy. It allowed a different type of MP to be elected. The demands of the Chartists, laughed out of town by the leaders of the day, are now commonplace around the world.


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