Having spent most of my adult life as a Labour Party activist, I am fascinated by the early election “Poll Books”: they contain an actual record against each voter’s name of the candidate they voted for. How different from modern elections, where sharing a photo of a completed ballot paper could result in a prison term of up to six months or a fine of up to £5,000!
So there’s a certain frisson in knowing which of our ancestors voted for the Whig candidate and which for the Tory (though of course it’s not possible to compare the political parties directly with the ones we have now).
In some elections where two MP’s are to be elected at once, they seem to have hedged their bets and voted for one from each Party!
In the 1807 election for two Yorkshire MPs there were three candidates. At this distance of time, I don’t mind telling you that our family members Samuel, William and Jeremiah Bell all voted for Lord Milton (the Whig candidate). I was puzzled to see that they, and many of their neighbours, had not used their “second vote”. It seemed odd that they didn’t vote for their fellow Dissenter and anti-slavery campaigner, William Wilberforce.
Looking into it further, I found that they they, and many others, were told that they could only vote for one candidate at a time, and had to come back later to vote for the second. When they tried to come back later, they were rejected.
In the exciting “Account of the Manner of Proceedings at the Contested Election for Yorkshire, in 1807 ” it is recorded that Wilberforce objected:
“About the middle of the election, Mr. Wilberforce represented to the assessors, that he had reason to believe many persons had voted for one of his opponents singly, under a mistaken idea that they might return afterwards and vote for himself. He therefore wished that a caution should be given to every voter before he polled, to prevent similar mistakes in future.”
Then and now
According to William Hague in his biography of William Wilberforce, this was not the only “second vote” issue: “the two rival camps were soon putting it about that Wilberforce was so safe that he did not need any second votes”. I am sorry to say that even now I am very familiar with this technique and the reverse – “we’re losing, we need every vote”.
At the time of writing (December 2019) there is an outcry against a well-known journalist for apparently being in breach of election law by revealing information about postal votes and thus influencing the outcome of the election. A hundred and twelve years on we still don’t seem to be getting it right …