Today many of us will make the short journey to the neighbourhood polling booth to cast our vote in the local elections. It might be a church hall, a school or somewhere more unusual, but whatever the building, the one thing that will be the same for everyone is that the vote will be cast in private, placed in a sealed box and no other person will be able to tell against which candidates name you placed that precious cross.
It was not always that way though. Prior to 1872, the two fifths of the population who were eligible to vote had to do so in a very public manner making their choice by a show of hands, verbally stating their choice, or by marking their paper in front of people. The room was often packed with people and included the agents or representatives of the candidates.
As you would imagine, the system was open to all types of abuse such as bribery or threats and intimidation. Voters were also wary of voting in a manner that an employer or landlord, or even a potential father-in-law, would object to. The skilled working class in borough constituencies who had been enfranchised as a result of the Representation of the People Act 1867, were especially vulnerable to this bullying.
A change was urgently needed. But the ruling classes were very reluctant to adopt any changes, labelling the prospect of secret ballots as ‘un-English’ or ‘un-manly’. One suspects however, that the true reason behind their opposition was the fear of a loss of power and influence over their employees, tenants, and others.
The Ballot Act 1872: secret ballots
Despite the opposition, the Ballot Act of 1872 was introduced mandating the use of a secret ballot as the way of electing a member of parliament. In Pontefract Museum, just a couple of miles down the road from where I am sat drafting this article, is one of the wooden boxes that played a major part in the first ever secret ballot.
By accident, Pontefract became the first town to vote in private when its Liberal MP Hugh Childers was newly appointed as a minister. In line with the rules pertaining at the time, he had to win a by-election to continue. Just as we will be doing today, voters cast their votes in separate booths where they could mark their paper in private and post it into the ballot box.
Specially made for the election, the boxes were marked with a wax security seal. In this case, the seal was made with a traditional liquorice stamp of a castle and an owl from a local factory where they used them to stamp Pontefract cakes.
A win for democracy
Out of interest, Hugh Childers was elected as expected. The biggest winner however was democracy. It was reported that “a contested election in which less intoxicating liquor was drunk, could not be remembered, and that the town was so quiet and orderly that ‘it hardly seemed like an election’”.
The first general election to use a secret ballot was in 1874.