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Ballot Act 1872

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Title: Ballot Act 1872  
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Subject: Secret ballot, Representation of the People (Ireland) Act 1868, Representation of the People Act 1989, United Kingdom general election, 1874, 1872 in the United Kingdom
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Ballot Act 1872

The Ballot Act, 1872
Long title An Act to amend the Law relating to Procedure at Parliamentary and Municipal Elections.
Chapter 35 & 36 Vict. c. 33
Introduced by Edward Aldam Leatham
Royal Assent 18 July 1872
Other legislation
Related legislation Representation of the People Act 1949 (UK); Electoral Act 1963 (RoI)
Status: Repealed

The Ballot Act 1872[1] 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.[2][3]


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]

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]

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'.

Election spending was, at the time, 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 to have been the key legislation in the attempts to end electoral corruption.

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.[2]

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]

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.[11]

See also


  1. ^ 1872 Ballot Act (archival record)
  2. ^ a b "The Ballot Act, 1872, with an Introduction: Forming a Guide to the Procedure at Parliamentary and Municipal Elections", p97 (Fitzgerald, London, 1876)
  3. ^ "Our voting system is flawed, but politicians don’t seem to care" (Moore) 30 May 2014
  4. ^ "Learning - Dreamers and Dissenters: The Secret Ballot", retrieved 31 May 2014
  5. ^ "Factsheet - December 2006: Ballot secrecy", retrieved May 2014
  6. ^ a b 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. ^ A Dictionary of Irish History, D J Hickey & J E Doherty, Gill and Macmillan, Dublin, 1980, p. 24. ISBN 0-7171-1567-4
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