The Secret Ballot: The Secret to Reducing Electoral Violence?

In July 1872, 150 years ago this month, the Ballot Act introduced the secret ballot to all UK parliamentary and local elections. Here guest blogger Dr Gary Hutchison, of the Causes and Consequences of Electoral Violence project, discusses how the secret ballot affected violence at elections. An Interactive Map of over 3,000 violent events, from individual assaults to riots, can be found on their website.

Victorian elections in England and Wales were far, far more violent than has previously been thought. During the last general election before the secret ballot in 1868 there were at least thirty-seven riots, over one hundred smaller disturbances and almost two hundred smaller violent incidents. Seventeen deaths were directly caused by the contests taking place. This state of affairs was, in fact, not particularly out-of-the-ordinary for an election. Violence was a fact of everyday electoral life. Below are two images – Market Square, Nottingham, in the present day, and Market Square during the 1865 election:

© Copyright Dave Hitchborne and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

In 1865, hired thugs waited at various points around the town centre for the election candidates to appear. When the candidates very prudently declined to emerge, the thugs took hold of the hustings platform and set fire to it, burning it to the ground. They then pelted partisan supporters with stones, causing severe injuries. A mob of thousands of people took control of the marketplace, causing the scenes depicted in the image. Police were unable to restore order for several hours. It wasn’t even the most violent riot of that election in England and Wales.

Locations of Electoral Violence in England and Wales, 1832 –1914

Violence broke all over the country during elections, and many Victorians had long thought that the secret ballot would make elections less corrupt and less violent. Before the secret ballot, not to our knowledge did violence break out in any general election in Pontefract, the first place in the UK to use the secret ballot to elect a Member of Parliament. Between 1832 and its famous secret ballot by-election, things were peaceful. This wasn’t to last.

Newspaper Stories – Election Violence at Pontefract

Many thought the secret ballot would curb violence– in Pontefract, if anything, it had the opposite effect. Our project has no newspaper reports of violence recorded in the ten general elections between 1832 and 1868, but after the introduction of the ballot in 1872, violence occurred at Pontefract in the next five general elections,1874–1892.

Number of Violent General Election Events in England/Wales, 1832–December 1910

As the graph above illustrates, after the ballot was introduced (represented by the red line) violence was more widespread for a time across England and Wales. Despite appearances, the ballot wasn’t to blame for the any general increase in violence in the decade or so after its introduction – other factors came into play.

These included wider corruption, including the hiring of thugs by interested parties, popular anger and unrest, and the continuing (if declining) atmosphere of popular celebration and drunkenness which accompanied Victorian election contests. 

The secret ballot did, however, change the character of much of this violence. Before the ballot and expansion of the franchise, there might only be a few thousand, or even a few hundred voters in a constituency. Often, lists of voter choices were published as books, or even in the local newspaper. As shown in the image below, some also listed the street where each voter was registered.

1868 List of Voters and their Votes, Bury St Edmunds

George Abel, of Northgate Street, Bury St Edmunds, was one of 606 who plumped in 1868 for the candidate Edward Greene. Being a voter before the ballot left a person very exposed. This was especially the case if voters lived in a close or a hard-fought constituency. Individual intimidation, escalating to assault and destruction of personal property, was a real fear for many. In 1832 in Hertford for instance, individual violence was endemic – thugs imported from outside the town assaulted specifically-targeted local voters to discourage them from voting. One poor voter was assaulted in half a dozen separate instances across two weeks.

The secret ballot largely removed the ability to employ this unsavoury electioneering method – vote choices were now anonymous, and there were many more voters in each constituency. Violence which focused purely on individual voters was no longer viable in the new age. Groups of voters could still, however, be targeted, albeit less precisely.

Birmingham, 1886; Flickr

In Birmingham during the 1880 election for instance, there were several polling stations in different areas throughout the city. At the Ladywood station, hired roughs illegally pretended to be special police constables, to prevent entry to polling stations, causing fights; at St Stephens station, roughs allegedly prevented Liberals from voting and demanded money from them, before storming the Conservative committee HQ, requiring the intervention of a dozen policemen.

Conservatives deliberately targeted specific polling stations, located in geographical areas which were known to be Liberal-leaning. Elsewhere in the country in 1880, and during other General Elections, supporters of both parties participated in mass voter suppression.

This is at least partly why recorded violence appears to increase after the introduction of the Ballot. Small-scale harassment, occasionally leading to violence, of individual voters was much less likely to be visible before the Ballot. Mass voter suppression, by contrast, is a bigger, messier phenomenon, more likely to be noticed by newspapers and the police.

Other changes also contributed to the increase in violent events, related to the culture and structure of elections. In Birmingham during the 1880 violence, for instance, there were different many polling stations, and many political meetings were held in the run-up to the election. Before the 1870s, there were fewer polling stations, and fewer political meetings – fewer flashpoints at which violence was likely to break out.

Overall, elections were becoming steadily less carnivalesque, less drunken, and less heated after the introduction of the secret ballot. There is less evidence, however, that they were becoming less corrupt. While the ballot didn’t, on its own, lead to a reduction in violence, it was a vital component contributing to its eventual decline.  The ballot, alongside, later efforts to challenge wider corruption, further expansion of the right to vote, and social and cultural change, eventually resulted in a much more peaceful electoral culture in the United Kingdom. 


Follow the Causes and Consequences of Electoral Violence project on their website and on twitter @VictorianEV_UK.

Find lots more information about electoral reform on our Victorian Commons blog site.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s