Monday, 3 June 2019

How the People's Charter envisaged a secret ballot taking place

In the absence of a great deal of practical precedent, how did the Chartists envisage a secret ballot working?

The question arose at last weekend’s Chartism Day conference when Dr Tom Scriven put on screen a copy of the People’s Charter, with its illustrations of a proposed ballot box, as part of his talk on Chartism’s electoral strategy.

And it turned out that none of us there appeared to know the answer.
Balloting explained
in the Charter

In fact, a great deal is explained in the Charter itself.

The illustrations here are taken from the third edition of the Charter, published in 1838; Dr Scriven used the “perfect edition” published later, after consultation within the movement had concluded; and there are other subsequent versions. It is unlikely, however, that this aspect of the Charter changed.

(Clicking on the illustrations here should open larger, more legible versions)

In understanding how Chartists saw the practical operation of secret voting, it is important to get away from the idea that this involved putting a cross, or any other mark, on a piece of paper.

Rather, the Charter proposes a system which would involve the voter placing a brass ball in one of a number of holes, each of which represented a candidate.

Illustration B: the ballot box
Illustration B shows two views of the ballot box. So, in this example, there are five candidates, and five holes on top, each marked with a candidate’s name. The brass ball would have been dropped into the correct hole, engaged a clockwork spring and pinion attached to the clock shown at the front and moved the count on by one each time.

During voting, the front of the box would have been closed, as shown on the right hand side of the illustration, to maintain secrecy. The ball itself would have emerged from single hole at the bottom of the mechanism and rolled down a sloping table (marked as 4) to be retrieved for the next voter.

Illustration A: "the balloting place"
As illustration A shows, this whole mechanism, slightly reminiscent of a pinball-machine, was to be embedded in a wall (number 4), the voter passing along a short corridor between doors marked at 2 and 3, seeing only the holes in which to vote. The ball would emerge into the main room in which sat the deputy returning officer, candidates’ agents, clerks and others.

This does have some advantages over paper ballots of the type we use today. The results would have been available instantly voting finished, shown on the clockfaces of the ballot machine; and there would have been no room for human error in counting votes towards the wrong candidate.

However, it is not clear how the mechanism would have worked. The Charter itself says:

“We understand that a Ballot Box of this description has been invented by Mr Benjamin Jolly, 19 York Street, Bath, and it is so constructed that not more than one ball can be put in at a time by any voter.”

There must, however, be some concerns that the mechanism might be forced into counting two votes at a time if the voter dropped the brass ball with sufficient enthusiasm.

Or perhaps that the mechanism could seize up, with officials having to open the machine to free a trapped ballot ball. Would the clocks then potentially zero themselves? Finally, of course, there would be no possibility of a recount without rerunning the entire vote.

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