How secret ballots came to be the norm

Ballot box

Ballot box

Have your say

CABINET CALL: By Coun Sally Slade

‘Which way are you voting?’ With the EU Referendum approaching in June, I have lost count of the number of times that I have been asked this question. Everyone has a compelling opinion; everyone is a pub political pundit. Whilst I am pleased that there is such a high level of interest, it does surprise me that we are openly asking people which way we will be voting. Normally we in the UK don’t discuss politics in social situations!

I have talked about electoral reform in a previous article, but the secret ballot was arguably the most important reform of all, and one of the last. Had you been a voter in the early to mid 1800s, you would have been expected to vote for your boss, your landlord, your local bigwig, or whoever had bribed you. And they could see how you voted!

Voting was usually in the open air, where voters stated their preference to huge cheers or boos from the watching audience. There might be specially constructed (but open) booths. You would be asked for your name and address, and how you voted. “Mr Bloggs and Mr Biggs, sir”, you would say, and the two candidates, who were watching, would nod approvingly. Even if they were not actually present, there were other ways that the candidates could check who had voted for them. The clerk kept a record on a list, which was frequently sold and published in newspapers.

Whilst this makes for an exciting time at the polling booth, and certainly more of a spectacle for an audience than voting today, it was open to such abuses that it had to be changed. There was opposition; it was seen as un-English and unmanly to vote in secret!

The 1872 Ballot Act gave voters the right to vote in secret, substantially reducing the cost of campaigning (no need for bribery) and thereby encouraging more contested elections. The first time it was used to elect an MP was at a by-election in August 1872 in Pontefract.

Today our pub political pundits can express an opinion about the Referendum in public, but nobody but them will know how they voted at the ballot box. That is their prerogative and a right which the 1872 Ballot Act gave them.

If you are not already registered to vote, you need to do so by June 7th, in order to be eligible to vote in the Referendum. You can do so on If you are not sure whether you are registered, you can check online, or call electoral services on 01775 761161.