Rhodri Marsden's Interesting Objects: Pontefract's secret ballot box

The 1872 Ballot Act sought to stop voter intimidation by introducing secret ballots

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Indy Politics

* If you were lucky enough to have the vote in mid-19th-century Britain, you'd turn up in a room, someone would ask you your voting preference, you'd tell them, and a throng of spectators would either cheer or boo as your vote was recorded. It was a bad system, for obvious reasons. The 1872 Ballot Act sought to stop voter intimidation by introducing secret ballots; three weeks after it was passed, a by-election in Pontefract put the new system to the test.

* The "hardworking but inept" sitting Liberal MP, Hugh Childers, sought re-election after being appointed as a minister, because that's what used to happen back then. Huge numbers of people travelled to Pontefract to watch the new-fangled democratic process, but there were teething troubles. Some of the hastily-constructed booths had gaps through which the voting process was clearly visible. The requirement for polling stations to have separate entrances and exits meant that voters at one school had to leave through a window and "run down a steep incline on a springboard". And 199 of the 1,236 people polled were illiterate, which meant that they had to cast their vote orally. Each time they did so, the room had to be cleared of voters and policemen in case they heard.

* Pontefract Museum retains one ballot box from that election, with a wax seal that, strangely, bears a stamp that was normally used to imprint Pontefract cakes at the nearby liquorice factory. Four hours after the polls closed, the result was announced. Did secret ballots change the way Pontefract voted? Nope. Childers retained his seat with an almost identical majority to the General Election. But the ballot was deemed a success, regardless. "Persons of great experience," wrote a reporter from the Times, "declare that they never saw a contested election in which less intoxicating liquor was drunk"

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