Ballot Act 1872
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Ballot Act 1872
The Ballot Act 1872[1]
Long titleAn Act to amend the Law relating to Procedure at Parliamentary and Municipal Elections.
Citation35 & 36 Vict. c. 33
Introduced byEdward Aldam Leatham
Royal assent18 July 1872
Other legislation
Relates toRepresentation of the People Act 1949 (UK); Electoral Act 1963 (RoI)
Status: Repealed
Text of statute as originally enacted

The Ballot Act 1872 was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom that introduced the requirement for parliamentary and local government elections in the United Kingdom to be held by secret ballot.[2][3][4]


Employers and landowners 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. Small retailers were also concerned not to upset their bigger customers by voting differently from them. Radicals, such as the Chartists, had long campaigned for the system to end by the introduction of a secret ballot.[5][6]

The Representation of the People Act 1867, or Second Reform Act, enfranchised the skilled working class in borough constituencies, and it was felt that their economic circumstances would cause such voters to be particularly susceptible to bribery, intimidation or blackmail.[7][8] The radical John Bright expressed concerns that tenants would face the threat of eviction if they voted against the wishes of their landlord. It fell to Edward Aldam Leatham, the husband of Bright's sister, to introduce the Ballot Act on leave.[7]

Many in 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 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.

The Ballot Act, in combination with the Municipal Elections Act 1875[9] and the Parliamentary Elections (Returning Officers) Act 1875,[10] is considered to have ushered in today's electoral practices.[2]


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.[11] Of those who voted, 16%, were illiterate, and special arrangements had to be made to record their previously-open oral votes.[12]

The first general election using a secret ballot was in 1874, which saw the first Conservative majority elected since 1841.

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.[13]


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).[14] The elections of 1878 were a victory for the Liberal Party.[]

See also


  1. ^ This short title was conferred on this Act by section 33 of this Act.
  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. ^ 1872 Ballot Act (archival record)
  5. ^ "Learning - Dreamers and Dissenters: The Secret Ballot", retrieved 31 May 2014
  6. ^ "Factsheet - December 2006: Ballot secrecy", retrieved May 2014
  7. ^ a b LEAVE. FIRST READING. House of Commons Debates, MR. LEATHAM, 14 February 1870 vol 199 cc268-84 § 268
  8. ^ SECOND READING. House of Commons Debate, MR. LEATHAM, 16 March 1870 vol 200 cc10-60 § 10
  9. ^ 38 & 39 Vict, c.40
  10. ^ 38 & 39 Vict, c.84
  11. ^ Pontefract's secret ballot box, 1872
  12. ^ 'Watched with considerable curiosity': The first secret ballot in Britain, 15 August 1872, by Dr Kathryn Rix
  13. ^ A Dictionary of Irish History, D J Hickey & J E Doherty, Gill and Macmillan, Dublin, 1980, p. 24. ISBN 0-7171-1567-4
  14. ^ Donald Weber (2003). ""La marche des opérations électorales ". Bepalingen rond kiesverrichtingen in de Belgische kieswetgeving, 1830-1940".

Further reading

  • Woodall, Robert. "The Ballot Act of 1872" History Today (July 1974), Vol. 24 Issue 7, pp 464-471 online.

  This article uses material from the Wikipedia page available here. It is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.



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