Predicting the polls: a Victorian perspective

As the UK goes to the polls today, here’s the last in our series of blogs on elections through the centuries. With the outcome of today’s vote still baffling the pollsters, Dr Philip Salmon, Editor of the Victorian Commons, discusses how parties tried to deal with uncertainty before voting was secret…

Victorian electoral print of an elector and candidate

As the UK’s pollsters and pundits vie for coverage in what appears to be a remarkably unpredictable election campaign, it is worth noting how Victorian political parties tried to minimise the uncertainty of going to the polls, using their own very distinct methods.

Victorian politicians enjoyed one major advantage over modern candidates. Because all voting was done in public before 1872, they could easily ascertain how each elector had behaved at a previous poll. Pollbooks listing all the individual votes cast by every elector provided agents with a clear guide to the politics of each constituency. Potential supporters and opponents could easily be identified. This not only had an obvious impact on canvassing – rewards for loyal friends, pressure and influence exerted on foes – but also enabled local parties to ‘target’ electors in one other way that in our modern democracy seems extraordinary.

Objections to voting entitlements notice from 1844
Objections to voting entitlements notice from 1844

Before 1918 party agents actually had the ability to challenge the voting qualifications of their known opponents in registration courts, where the lists of all those who could vote (as opposed to those who failed to meet the franchise requirements) were decided by revising barristers. It was not unusual for both parties to have solicitors (and professional agents) in attendance at the annual registrations, assisting the claims of their supporters and trying to find fault with the entitlements of their opponents in order to get them struck off the registers. The outcome of these legal battles could even decide the result of a future election. If one party won a clear majority on the rolls, there was simply no point in their opponents going to the trouble and expense of standing in a poll. This helps to explain why so many Victorian elections continued to be ‘uncontested’.

Interestingly, it was not unusual for ‘floating’ voters or those with a record of switching sides to have their voting entitlements challenged by both political parties in the registration courts. Instead of being courted, as undecided voters are today, this group was deliberately shunned, being considered too fickle and unworthy of the franchise by those who thought party loyalty should be a public duty.

Whatever certainty was gained by successful campaigns to remove these ‘floating’ voters from the rolls, however, was more than offset by the number of ‘new’ electors who freshly qualified for the franchise each year. These inexperienced voters, who had recently acquired sufficient property (or moved into a large enough house) to qualify for the various franchises on offer, posed a real challenge for election agents. Although their admission to the registers might be sponsored by one of the parties, sometimes even to the extent of having their registration fees and rates paid on their behalf, there was never any guarantee that they would poll as expected.

New voters therefore injected an essential element of uncertainty into most Victorian polls, helping to offset the decisive nature of organised registration campaigns. It was this group, more than any other, who possessed the ability to ‘swing’ an election. Unlike today, however, these new voters were not synonymous with youth, but instead were usually mature men well advanced in their careers and economic status. Due to considerable electoral turnover, driven by high levels of mortality and residential mobility, these newly qualified voters often made up as much as third of the electorate.

Modern candidates can take comfort from the fact that one final feature of Victorian elections, which created huge amounts of electoral uncertainty, has long since ceased to exist. This was the ability of electors to cast multiple votes due to the large number of constituencies that elected two (or more) MPs, enabling voters to cast two (or more) votes. In 1832 over 96% of the English electorate actually had more than one vote at their disposal. By being able to cast multiple votes, electors could easily split their support between parties, backing one candidate whilst also polling for a rival. Alternatively they could choose to cast just one of their votes, in a form of behaviour known as ‘plumping’. It was this multiple voting system that ultimately made Victorian polls far more complex than our modern first-past-the-post elections. Even with pollbooks and the ability to influence the registers, the range of voting permutations on offer when more than two candidates stood meant that electoral outcomes often became impossible to predict. At least today’s pollsters only have to deal with single-member seats.


Further Reading:

For further information about Victorian multi-member polls see

For further details about party registration battles see

You can read all in our series on historical elections here.

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