In 1872 a Ballot Act was passed that introduced the right for voters to vote in secret during an election away from prying eyes. Along with the 1832, 1867 and the 1884 Reform Acts, the act formed the backbone of electoral reform in Nineteenth Century Britain. The 1872 Ballot Act was a major extension of democracy – though none of the above acts introduced any political rights for women.
The description of an election in ‘Pickwick Papers’ by Charles Dickens gives a graphic description of what an election was like prior to the 1872 act. Though the 1832 Reform Act had increased the number of voters, none of them had the right to vote in secret. Therefore with open voting, voters who rented out property or relied on a local employer for work had to invariably vote as the property owner or employer wanted them to vote. If they did not, they risked losing their accommodation and employment. In this sense though the 1832 act is seen as an extension of democracy, the fact that voters risked a great deal if they voted with their conscious works against this belief. That is why the 1872 Ballot Act is so important – as it was a real extension of democracy.
Though we take voting in secret as a natural course of action now, there were many in the Nineteenth Century who did not support it as they felt that property owners and employers had a right to influence the way people voted.