On this day in history : 18th July 1872 – The Ballot Act is passed by Parliament – meaning that parliamentary and local government elections are no longer to be public but will be held by secret ballot….

‘The Polling’ from The Humours of an Election series, 1755 by William Hogarth – Public domain

The first secret ballot was held three weeks later, on the 15th of August 1872, in the by-election of Pontefract, West Yorkshire – where newly elected MP for Pontefract, Hugh Childers, needed to win in order to be able to serve….

The Pontefract by-election was a very different affair to what people were used to…. Up until that point voters – men only of course – declared openly to which candidate they were backing, either by a show of hands, calling out their choice or marking their paper for all to see…. Onlookers would jeer or cheer…. With it being public knowledge who voted for who the proceedings were open to bribery, coercion and intimidation….men could lose their jobs and homes if they did not vote the way their employers and landlords wanted them to…. Voters would often be bullied, with mobs brought in to persuade peoples’ opinions – sometimes full-blown fights would break out….

Other times it could be like a drunken party…. Candidates were known to ply voters with large quantities of alcohol, or even lay on lavish feasts, suppers and parties, to sway the vote their way….

‘An Election Entertainment’ from The Humours of an Election series, 1755 by William Hogarth – Public domain

With corruption so rife politicians realised a change was needed…. The Ballot Act of 1872 gave a right to privacy…. “The Act which establishes the Ballot will assist to secure alike the independence of the voter and the tranquility and purity of elections for members to serve in Parliament”….

The first voting boxes were made specially for the occasion – with a seal of wax to make sure it could not be tampered with…. The seal, which depicted a castle and an owl, was made with a liquorice stamp from the local Pontefract Cake factory…. The first box can be seen in the Pontefract Museum, complete with its wax seal….

The Ballot Box at Pontefract Museum – Image credit : ReptOn1x – CC BY-SA 3.0

The first new secret ballot was a very sober affair…. People complained the life and soul and all the fun had gone out of voting…. The Ballot Act – which also gained the name ‘The Australian Ballot’, as the system had first been used in Australia in 1856 – failed to completely erase bribery and corruption – candidates still spent liberally to attract votes…. Gladstone’s government tackled this by setting up a royal commission to look into the system which led to the ‘Corrupt and Illegal Practices Act, 1883’ – which clarified what candidates could legitimately spend election expenses on…. It criminalised attempts to bribe voters, including with food and drink….

‘Canvassing For Votes’ from The Humours of an Election series 1755, by William Hogarth – Public domain

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