The Un-Englishness of the Secret Ballot

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“Disguise in all its forms is a badge of slavery.” That J.S. Mill, at one time an ardent advocate of secret voting and later its equally ardent opponent, should have included this sentiment in his attack on the ballot may strike one as rather odd. Yet the expression of sentiments of this kind was not an uncommon feature of the debate provoked by the ballot question during the mid-Victorian period and before. Although Mill himself did not explicitly stigmatize the ballot as “un-English,” the emotional content of his condemnation strongly resembled a considerable number of written and verbal assaults on secret voting which attached that label to the proposed reform. Such denunciations of secret voting as un-English were taken seriously at the time, and should be treated seriously by historians of early and mid-Victorian England.

It is, however, necessary to place this un-English aspect within a broader context. The opponents of the ballot were motivated by a number of considerations, and different opponents attacked the measure for different reasons. The formulation of the case against the ballot incorporated several diverse elements: the self-interest of an aristocracy nervous about the potential impact of secret voting on the existing distribution of political power; intellectual convictions concerning the nature of the franchise; and emotional commitments which rejected secret voting as un-English. To ignore the first two of these elements would be to obscure the relative significance of the last. Thus it is perhaps best to begin with the emergence of the ballot as a practical political issue.







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