Ballot Act 1872

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Ballot Act 1872
Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom (1837-1952).svg
Long title An Act to amend the Law relating to Procedure at Parliamentary and Municipal Elections.
Citation 35 & 36 Vict. c. 33
Introduced by Edward Aldam Leatham
Royal assent 18 July 1872
Other legislation
Relates to Representation of the People Act 1949 (UK); Electoral Act 1963 (RoI)
Status: Repealed

The Ballot Act 1872 was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom that introduced the requirement that parliamentary and local government elections in the United Kingdom be held by secret ballot. [1] [2] [3]

An act of parliament, also called primary legislation, are statutes passed by a parliament (legislature). Act of the Oireachtas is an equivalent term used in the Republic of Ireland where the legislature is commonly known by its Irish name, Oireachtas. It is also comparable to an Act of Congress in the United States.

Parliament of the United Kingdom Supreme legislative body of the United Kingdom

The Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, commonly known internationally as the UK Parliament, British Parliament, or Westminster Parliament, and domestically simply as Parliament, is the supreme legislative body of the United Kingdom, the Crown dependencies and the British Overseas Territories. It alone possesses legislative supremacy and thereby ultimate power over all other political bodies in the UK and the overseas territories. Parliament is bicameral but has three parts, consisting of the Sovereign, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons. The two houses meet in the Palace of Westminster in the City of Westminster, one of the inner boroughs of the capital city, London.

Elections in the United Kingdom types of elections in the United Kingdom

There are six types of elections in the United Kingdom: elections to the House of Commons of the United Kingdom, elections to devolved parliaments and assemblies, elections to the European Parliament, local elections, mayoral elections and Police and Crime Commissioner elections. Within each of those categories, there may be by-elections as well as general elections. Elections are held on Election Day, which is conventionally a Thursday. Since the passing of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 for general elections, all six types of elections are held after fixed periods, though early elections to parliament and the devolved assemblies and parliaments can occur in certain situations. Currently, six electoral systems are used: the single member plurality system, the multi member plurality system, party-list proportional representation, the single transferable vote, the additional member system and the supplementary vote.



Employers and land owners had been able to use their sway over employees and tenants to influence the vote, either by being present themselves or by sending representatives to check on the votes as they were being cast. Radicals, such as the Chartists, had long campaigned for this system to end with the introduction of a secret ballot. [4] [5]

Chartism British democratic movement (1838-1857)

Chartism was a working-class movement for political reform in Britain that existed from 1838 to 1857. It took its name from the People's Charter of 1838 and was a national protest movement, with particular strongholds of support in Northern England, the East Midlands, the Staffordshire Potteries, the Black Country, and the South Wales Valleys. Support for the movement was at its highest in 1839, 1842, and 1848, when petitions signed by millions of working people were presented to the House of Commons. The strategy employed was to use the scale of support which these petitions and the accompanying mass meetings demonstrated to put pressure on politicians to concede manhood suffrage. Chartism thus relied on constitutional methods to secure its aims, though there were some who became involved in insurrectionary activities, notably in south Wales and in Yorkshire.

The Representation of the People Act 1867 (the Second Reform Act) enfranchised the skilled working class in borough constituencies, and it was felt that, due to their economic circumstances, these voters would be particularly susceptible to bribery, intimidation, or blackmail. [6] [7] The radical John Bright expressed concerns that tenants would face the threat of eviction were they to vote against the wishes of their landlord. It fell to Edward Aldam Leatham, husband of John Bright's sister, to introduce the Ballot Act on leave. [6]

John Bright British Radical and Liberal statesman

John Bright was a British Radical and Liberal statesman, one of the greatest orators of his generation and a promoter of free trade policies.

Many within the establishment had opposed the introduction of a secret ballot. They felt that pressure from patrons on tenants was legitimate and that a secret ballot was simply unmanly and cowardly. Lord Russell voiced his opposition to the creation of a culture of secrecy in elections which he believed should be public affairs. He saw it as 'an obvious prelude from household to universal suffrage'.[ citation needed ]

John Russell, 1st Earl Russell Whig and Liberal British politician, Prime Minister on two occasions

John Russell, 1st Earl Russell,, known by his courtesy title Lord John Russell before 1861, was a leading Whig and Liberal politician who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom on two occasions during the early Victorian era.

Election spending at the time was unlimited, and many voters would take bribes from both sides. While the secret ballot might have had some effect in reducing corruption in British politics, the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act 1883 formalised the position and is seen by many[ who? ] to have been the key legislation in the attempts to end electoral corruption.

Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act 1883

The Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act 1883 was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. It was a continuation of policy to make voters free from the intimidation of landowners and politicians. It criminalised attempts to bribe voters and standardised the amount that could be spent on election expenses.

This Act, in combination with the Municipal Elections Act 1875 [8] and the Parliamentary Elections (Returning Officers) Act 1875, [9] is considered to have ushered in the electoral practices of today. [1]

Effect of the Act

The secret ballot mandated by the Act was first used on 15 August 1872 to re-elect Hugh Childers as MP for Pontefract in a ministerial by-election, following his appointment as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. The original ballot box, sealed in wax with a liquorice stamp, is held at Pontefract museum. [10] 16% of those who voted were illiterate and special arrangements had to be made to record their previously open oral votes. [11]

The Ballot Act 1872 was of particular importance in Ireland, as it enabled tenants to vote against the landlord class in parliamentary elections. The principal result of the Act was seen in the General Election of 1880, which marked the end of a landlord interest in both Ireland and Great Britain. [12]

Effect abroad

The Act inspired Belgian minister Jules Malou to implement a similar system in Belgium, which he did with the act of 9 July 1877 (la loi du 9 juillet 1877 sur le secret du vote et les fraudes électorales). [13] The following elections of 1878 were a victory for the Liberal Party.

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The Pontefract by-election of 1872 was fought on 15 August 1872. The ministerial by-election was fought due to the incumbent Liberal MP, Hugh Childers, becoming Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Paymaster General. It was retained by Childers.


  1. 1 2 "The Ballot Act, 1872, with an Introduction: Forming a Guide to the Procedure at Parliamentary and Municipal Elections", p97 (Fitzgerald, London, 1876)
  2. "Our voting system is flawed, but politicians don’t seem to care" (Moore) 30 May 2014
  3. 1872 Ballot Act (archival record)
  4. "Learning - Dreamers and Dissenters: The Secret Ballot", retrieved 31 May 2014
  5. "Factsheet - December 2006: Ballot secrecy", retrieved May 2014
  6. 1 2 LEAVE. FIRST READING. House of Commons Debates, MR. LEATHAM, 14 February 1870 vol 199 cc268-84 § 268
  7. SECOND READING. House of Commons Debate, MR. LEATHAM, 16 March 1870 vol 200 cc10-60 § 10
  8. 38 & 39 Vict, c.40
  9. 38 & 39 Vict, c.84
  10. Pontefract's secret ballot box, 1872
  11. ‘Watched with considerable curiosity’: The first secret ballot in Britain, 15 August 1872, by Dr Kathryn Rix
  12. A Dictionary of Irish History, D J Hickey & J E Doherty, Gill and Macmillan, Dublin, 1980, p. 24. ISBN   0-7171-1567-4
  13. Donald Weber (2003). ""La marche des opérations électorales ". Bepalingen rond kiesverrichtingen in de Belgische kieswetgeving, 1830-1940".