I began my A-Z of parliamentary history a couple of weeks ago with ‘Applause’. There were many options for ‘B’. The most obvious – bills – is far too big a subject to deal with in a blog. I thought the ballot would be a much easier proposition: it has turned out (of course) to be far more complicated than I had imagined. And I’ve barely mentioned the Lords…

We often think of elections by secret ballot as a relatively modern practice, one of the key Chartist demands, eventually conceded in 1872, a major element of the system of parliamentary elections we have today. We less commonly think of its use within the House of Commons itself. The word is currently used to describe two different processes in the Commons. The first is the procedure used for the election of senior office holders – the Speaker, deputy speakers and select committee chairs. The second is that for the allocation of time on the floor of the House for the debating of private members’ bills under Standing Order 14 (10) – a system which outside Parliament is more likely to be referred to as a sort of lottery, something like a raffle or the tombola at the village fete (though, of course, Members do not pay to enter). In the Lords the ballot is used for the election of the lord speaker, and for the by-elections of hereditary peers (though the electorate is, of course, external to the House).

We also rarely recognise just how old the ballot is. For the ballot as a means of decision-making, either as a form of election or as a means of allocating benefits, has its origins in antiquity. It’s often a surprise to discover that secret voting, including by ballot, was not unusual in medieval England either. There are many examples of secret voting in municipal elections from the fourteenth century onwards. Here’s an example from Oxford in the sixteenth century and another from Barnstaple in the seventeenth. A 1607 charter required the use of the secret ballot at Pontefract (which, coincidentally, is where the ballot was first used for parliamentary elections under the 1872 act). Some of the trading companies and corporations set up around this period favoured secret voting by ballot, apparently to the disapproval of Charles I, who forbade the practice for any company in the City of London in 1637. No doubt election by ballot was the most convenient way of taking contested decisions (particularly the choice of officers) in such commercial organisations; and presumably the crown disliked it because it meant that they were less easily pressured into compliance with its wishes. The king’s disapproval may suggest some more specifically political undertones to the choice of the ballot. Balloting was famous from its use in Venice, described most fully by Gasparo Contarini in the book published in English translation in 1599 as The Commonwealth and Government of Venice (De Magistratibus). Venice was deeply admired not only for its wealth and strength, but for the remarkable effectiveness of a government in which power was widely distributed and yet corruption allegedly unknown: the orderly silence in which the election of its officials took place was seen as one of the essential ways in which faction was prevented and independence preserved. James Harrington’s essay setting out an imagined republican constitution for England, Oceana, published in 1656, contained an appendix describing ‘the manner of the Venetian ballot (a thing as difficult in discourse or writing, as facile in practice) according to the use of it in Oceana’.

Balloting for jobs

This connection with democracy and republicanism might be part of the reason why balloting was adopted by the House of Commons following the execution of Charles I and the establishment of the republic. There was, it seems, a false start just after Parliament’s victory in the Civil War, on 10 October 1646, when, a motion that a committee charged with considering army commissions should also ‘consider of a balloting-box, and the use of it’ (presumably for making decisions about who would be appointed) was narrowly defeated. But in February 1650, a year after Parliament executed the king, the ballot was adopted by the new republic as the way of constituting its council of state, the executive that operated with delegated power from the House of Commons. The proposal was controversial, for there was a division on it, but the ballot would become an annual ritual during the Commonwealth. The rules were, thankfully, considerably less elaborate than those used in Harrington’s republic of Oceana, though complex enough. Notice was to be given a day before of the hour of the election. When the election took place, the doors were to be shut and no-one allowed to leave or enter. All members would be counted. Then every Member should write his choice of four names on a piece of paper, and the clerk of the House would go round the House collecting the papers in a ‘vessel’. Four of those who were already members of the council would act as tellers and would work out which four had received the greatest number of nominations. The winners would then be put to the House for approval. If there was a tie, the names of those with equal number of votes would be drawn out by lot and then put to the House in turn. An attempt to make each ballot paper identifiable was defeated.

After the Restoration, balloting fell into disuse, probably because the House no longer made appointments to significant offices, other than the speakership itself. Balloting was revived, however, after the Revolution of 1688-9. It’s tempting to attribute this, again, to a Whiggish preference for a system so strongly associated with a republic. It was used specifically for appointments to paid positions, established under statutory authority, that were regarded as particularly sensitive in political terms. On 19 May 1690, the Commons debated the appointment of a slate of commissioners to be named in a bill for taking the public accounts since 1688. The House decided that there should be nine commissioners and that every member of the House should draw up their own list of nine people to be put into a ‘glass at the table tomorrow morning at eleven of the clock’. A motion that each member should put his name on his paper was rejected, as it had been in 1650. From then on, the ballot was generally used when commissioners from the Commons were to be appointed to undertake various functions under statute, often inquiries into the public accounts. They were much fewer after 1715, but commissions were balloted on an annual basis after 1786 to serve as a court of appeal for offences committed in the East Indies.

Balloting for committees

But if statutory commissions became less common after 1715, balloting acquired a new function, as the means of nominating some House of Commons select committees. It was adopted initially for the appointment of committees with a particular requirement of confidentiality, ‘committees of secrecy’. The first was on 9 April 1715, when a committee of secrecy was appointed to examine books and papers about the negotiation of the peace with France and Spain in 1713. It was clearly intended by a new government in power to dig up material designed to compromise, and perhaps impeach, their predecessors and rivals. Similar committees were appointed in the same way to enquire into the conduct of the Earl of Orford – Sir Robert Walpole, the former prime minister – in 1742, shortly after his removal, and to enquire into the state of the East India Company in 1772. Some committees were appointed by ballot which were not described as committees of secrecy, but they were also on highly political business, such as that to inquire into the failure of the South Sea Company in January 1721. At some point (the new system is first referred to in 1742) the procedure was changed, so that instead of the clerks going round the House collecting the lists, members would come up to the table and place them into ‘Glasses’.

Why was balloting used for such bodies? The ostensible reason must have been to deter faction: this was seen as its great virtue in Venice, where it was supposed to result in matters likely to split the political world deeply being handled discreetly, and with little apparent factional bitterness. The real reason was probably precisely the opposite. It can be glimpsed in the incident in February 1786 before the ballot for members of the committee of appeals for offences committed in India, when notice was taken of a list of members being delivered in at the door of the House, presumably designed to influence members in preparing their own lists. It is even more apparent in the debate which led to the appointment of the last balloted select committee of major significance. In 1805 the tenth report of the commission of naval enquiry, a body set up by William Pitt years before as a clean government measure, produced evidence of either corruption or extreme carelessness against his key ally Henry Dundas, Lord Melville. After the Whig MP Samuel Whitbread had secured the passage of a series of resolutions critical of the administration and censuring Melville on 8 April, he demanded that a select committee to look further into the findings of the committee. When he proposed a list of members for the committee, Pitt objected, and proposed that the committee be named by ballot instead. Charles James Fox immediately

expressed his astonishment, that on a subject of such moment the right hon. gent. should resort to this mode. Nothing but the most perfect publicity could satisfy the ends of justice, or convince the public that they were in earnest. He said, that it was perfectly understood that a select committee of 21, if chosen by ballot, was a committee of persons who, somehow or another, spoke the sentiments of the minister, and if this were chosen in that way, jealousy and distrust would be the consequence; that this was a committee to try the ministers themselves, and that it was a monstrous thing that it should be nominated in a way that would countenance the supposition of influence.

Pitt, however, prevailed, and a committee was appointed in the traditional way on the following day, despite Whitbread’s report of a ‘very confident rumour’ that

notwithstanding all the apparent fairness and impartiality of a ballot, … the names to be returned upon the committee were pre-determined by the minister; by which the business of the ballot was converted into a solemn mockery, and rendered wholly nugatory as to the obvious intentions of the house. A list of those names had been this day put into his hand, which he would now read in his place.

They were all ministerial nominees. After further dispute, Whitbread proposed a motion ‘That it is a high breach of the privileges of this house, to circulate lists nominating persons to be chosen on any committee by ballot’. It was voted down by a solid ministerial majority.

So curiously, balloting, far from being a way of overcoming influence, turned out to be a way of disguising it: governments had found ways of discreetly ensuring that their nominees were appointed by circulating among their supporters a list of their preferred members. Its opponents were presumably, at this stage, incapable of the organisational effort required to do the same. The Melville affair wasn’t the end of the balloting system, as several further select committees were appointed in 1805. But the only ordinary select committees that were appointed by ballot after 1805 seem to have been a couple to do with election abuses, and only a handful of committees of secrecy were subsequently appointed by ballot, in 1817-19.

The Ballot and Elections

It might have declined for these sort of committees, but the ballot was by then entrenched in the procedures for the determining of election petitions. Initially the ballot was proposed as a way of introducing secret voting on propositions put to the House. These were complaints challenging the outcome and conduct of individual elections, on which the House of Commons itself was accustomed to adjudicate. They were the subject of bitterly fought partisan battles, particularly in the earliest years of the eighteenth century when the struggle between Whigs and Tories was at its most virulent. In January 1708 the Commons made an attempt at reform, setting up a committee to ‘consider of methods for the more speedy and easy trying and determining of controverted elections’. Among its conclusions was that ‘all questions at the trial of elections shall, if any member insist upon it, be determined by ballot’. When the committee was asked to consider how this would work, intriguingly, Robert Molesworth was added to the committee. Molesworth’s uncompromising advocacy of the virtues of old republican government was well known from his attacks of corruption in contemporary Scandinavia, An Account of Denmark, though his denunciation of political party and faction did not prevent him from becoming one of its principal agents. It’s not known, however, whether Molesworth was in any way responsible for the system that the committee recommended. This involved a balloting box and balls. One clerk would carry the box around the House while the other handed the balls to the members; two members of the House, appointed by the Speaker, would go around with them, and every Member present would be offered the balls. Each of them would ‘present his Hand bare and open, to receive the Ball, and … hold it up between his Finger and Thumb, before he put his Hand into the Box’. Then the votes would be counted and the result declared. The procedure was agreed to, though only on a narrow vote. It was tried for the first time only a few days later, on 26 February 1708, in proceedings on the election for Ashburton in Devon. It did not, however, last. I can’t find another instance of it being used, and at the beginning of the next session, on 22 November 1708, a motion that any motions on election petitions should be determined by Ballot ‘if any Member insists upon it’ was proposed and narrowly rejected. When the same motion was proposed again in the new Parliament of 1710, it was thrown out by an enormous majority. Perhaps this highly Tory Parliament sensed its Whiggish and republican associations.

Balloting though did come back, as part of an elaborate system created in statute for dealing with election petitions under what was known as ‘Grenville’s Act’ of 1770, and its successor of 1771. This time the ballot was used not to take decisions on the floor of the House, but in order to select the members of the committee that would hear each case. This system was first used on 11 December 1770, to appoint a select committee on the recent by-election at New Shoreham, Sussex. Unlike the ballots for the appointment of commissioners or select committees, however, this was not an election, but essentially a lot. The procedure was set out in extraordinarily specific detail in the original Act. All members in the vicinity were summoned to return to the House; the Speaker then counted the number of members in the House to ensure that the required quorum was present. With the petitioner, his counsel and agents attending at the bar, a box containing slips of paper on which were written the names of each Member of the House was placed on the table, with elaborate precautions designed to ensure that it had not been tampered with. The pieces of paper were removed and placed in equal numbers into six glasses, which were then shaken up. The clerk then ‘publicly drew out of the said six glasses, alternately, the said pieces of paper’, and gave them to the speaker, who read them out. Forty-nine names were drawn out. Then the counsel and petitioner were called upon to nominate one from among the members whose names had not been drawn, to be added to those chosen by lot. After this the counsel for both sides would then go out of the House and alternately strike off names, until the list was whittled down to a total of 15.

This system was in operation for nearly 60 years (although in 1829 the number of names to be drawn from the ballot was reduced to 33), but by the early nineteenth century it was seen as just as bad as its predecessors. The balloting element was not the only problem, but it was certainly one of them. The process by which names were struck out of the lists was particularly open to abuse, as each side would remove those they reckoned most likely to challenge their case. The result was commonly referred to as ‘knocking out the brains of a committee’. In a way that is difficult to piece together, this seems to have become a process in which the parties were intimately involved; party whips would customarily pressure the members on their side to attend in order to weight the odds on their side. It was widely acknowledged to be an appalling display, with the election committees as collections of men ‘of men whom neither honour, virtue, nor their oaths could bind when their political bias was engaged’. As with its use for the appointment of committees, the ballot, so generally seen as a means of protecting decision-making from illicit influence, had instead become associated with the operation of party, with abuse and corruption.

New legislation for determining election appeals was passed in 1839, which got rid of the balloting system – ironically, just at about the same time as the House of Commons was at the receiving end of a torrent of petitions demanding the use of the ballot in parliamentary elections. It wasn’t the end of balloting in the Commons either, for despite the poor reputation of the system for establishing election committees, around the same time it began to be used in procedures for dealing with private bills and for allocating the increasingly limited amount of time available to private members. By the twentieth century the ballot for private members’ bills was a major event in the annual parliamentary calendar. But this blog is already far too long, and that will have to wait for another day…


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