Suffrage and the Secret Ballot in Eighteenth-Century London Parishes
This article argues that pre-nineteenth century elections at a sub-national level have an important place in the history of ‘modern’ voting practices. It does this through a discussion of unusually well-documented election disputes in eighteenth-century London parishes. Previously neglected records of litigation in the ecclesiastical courts reveal that parish elections in this period generated arguments which did not take place at a parliamentary level until the following century: arguments over votes for women, votes for religious minorities, and the secret ballot. Customary electoral rules came under increasing pressure in the early eighteenth century as London’s population grew and changed in character. In some parishes, this produced a narrowing of the traditional ratepayer franchise, allowing only male Anglican ratepayers a vote in parish elections. Elsewhere, groups or individual residents successfully pushed for a more inclusive franchise which allowed ratepaying women, Dissenters, and Jews a voice in parochial politics. Similarly mixed practices emerged with regard to electoral procedure: residents who feared the overbearing influence of their neighbours pressed for a secret ballot, while others insisted on the merits of an open poll. These cases illustrate the importance of small-scale local institutions as key sites of innovation in the history of electoral reform.