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The Ballot Act.
- Government end but in a democracy, if the influence * were merely according to numbers?'
It is not necessary to say more in reference to this now obsolete notion, than to advert to the fact that the main argument by force of which the Ballot Act of 1872 was finally carried was, that in order to secure the individual independence of voters it was necessary to do all that could be done to strike at the root of the influence, direct or indirect, which could be exerted by large landed proprietors, or by the employers of labour generally.
Other effects of the Ballot Act, whether contemplated or not, have undoubtedly told in the same direction of isolating the voter from a variety of kinds of pressure under which he was often overwhelmed, and leaving him to consult nothing else, in judging between candidates, than the dictates of his own conscience and deliberate political convictions. It was said indeed by Mr. John Stuart Mill, and is still felt by many of those who are the most earnest vindicators of political liberty, that the effect of the Ballot must be to impair political conscientiousness, by hiding out of sight the fact that the franchise is at least as much a trust to be publicly exercised as a right to be privately enjoyed. With every deference to the fine moral susceptibility which alone could dictate this reasoning, it may be said that it is a question of fact whether, in the particular circumstances of a country, and at a particular time, a public trust can be exercised at all by the bulk of the population. The Ballot is a machinery to protect the individual voter, not against the nation on whose behalf
Guizot's Memoirs of Sir R. Peel, p. 64.
he exercises the trust, but against all sorts of illicit pressure, outrage, clamour, intrusiveness, curiosity, and confusion, which, on so solemn an occasion as that of recording a vote for a member of the Legislature, may disconcert even the strongest-minded voter, and which voters of average mental strength and intelligence may he wholly unable to bear up against. When it is said that those on whose behalf a trust is exercised have a claim to see how it is exercised, it must first be ascertained that the wrong persons do not stand in the way and prevent the right persons from overseeing what is done. The Ballot Act is another indication that a voter in the present day is less responsible to the immediate group or class to which he happens to belong, or which is nearest to him, than he is to the country at large. He has, on the contrary, to be forcibly extricated from the fetters with which his accidental surroundings bind him, in order to discharge his duty to those who are out of sight. He may indeed, and it will soon appear that a wise voter will, connect himself with new and artificial combinations; but these will be voluntary, or of his own construction. He may be the better titted to discharge his great trust by all sorts of helps and contrivances which he obtains from co-operation with his fellows. The policy of the Ballot Act has only been to afford him a mode of liberation from the effect of the hampering ties of neighbourhood or social relationship, with which neither he nor the country at large ought in this matter to have any concern. It would be a political and not a constitutional criticism to make any comment here on the actual working of the Ballot Act, whether in respect of public morals or of the orderliness of elections. It is sufficient to say Mr. Grote on the Ballot.
that, since the passing of that Act, great as have been the complaints of its alleged effect on the distribution of parties, no complaint whatever has been made in any authoritative quarter of its failing to secure an unprecedented freedom for the private voter in exercising the trust confided to him, nor of its deadening or weakening political zeal and the activity of political combination.
A short passage may here be inserted from a conversation reported in the Life of the late Mr. George Grote, who is well known to have been the most consistent and philosophic supporter of the Ballot, both in and out of Parliament. The conversation took place in 1870, just at the time when Mr. Gladstone's Government, through Lord Hartington, showed themselves willing to support a bill for the Ballot, or at least not to oppose one. In answer to the question, addressed to Mr. Grote, whether he would not feel great satisfaction at seeing his favourite measure triumph over all obstacles, he said: 'I should have done so, had it not • been for the recent alteration in the suffrage. Since
the wide expansion of the voting element, I confess • that the value of the Ballot has sunk in my estima• tion. I do not in fact think the elections will be • affected by it, one way or another, as far as party inter
ests are concerned. On his interlocutor observing, • You will at all events get at the genuine prefer
ence of the constituency in choosing their candidate,' Mr. Grote replied : “No doubt; but then, again, I have ' come to perceive that the choice between one man 6 and another, among the English people, signifies less than I used formerly to think it did. Take a section of society, cut it through from top to bottom, and 6 examine the composition of the successive layers. • They are much alike throughout the scale. The • opinions, all based upon the same social instincts; • never upon a clear or enlightened perception of gene
ral interests. Every particular class pursuing its own, • the result is, a universal struggle for the advantages 'accruing from party supremacy. The English mind • is much of one pattern, take whatsoever class you • will. The same favourite prejudices, amiable and 6 otherwise; the same antipathies, coupled with ill• regulated, though benevolent efforts to eradicate hu• man evils, are well-nigh universal : modified, naturally,
by instruction, among the highly-educated few; but • they hardly affect the course of out-of-doors sentiment. • I believe, therefore, that the actual composition of : Parliament represents with tolerable fidelity the Bri• tish People. And it will never be better than it is, for
a House of Commons cannot afford to be above its own • constituencies in intelligence, knowledge, or patriot(ism.''
The chief relevancy of this passage—if regarded as more than an interesting record of the later opinions of one who is more responsible than any other single man for what is, in any view, a momentous constitutional alteration is that it shows that a remedy, such as the Ballot, for particular evils, will be valued and valuable, not only in proportion to the absolute magnitude of those evils, but in proportion to the relative magnitude of them when compared with other evils. So long as the constituencies were small, bribery and corruption were among the main obstacles to political freedom and
"Life of George Grote, p. 313.
The Parliamentary Elections Act.
honesty. Bribery and corruption are just as bad since the constituencies have been enlarged, and the Ballot, so far as it is effective at all, is as effective a remedy for them as ever ; but with the growth of the constituency other evils, arising from the temporary depression, vulgarity, or selfishness of large masses of the people, come into view. The champion of the Ballot, consequently, feels that he has only attained his end at a moment wben a fresh vista of maladies, to be grappled with by a new generation, discloses itself. This is one out of a multitude of proofs that the Constitution is an organic whole, and not made up of separate fragments, so that even the most hopeful measure of reform depends for its success on the concurrent success of a vast number of other reforms.
The House of Commons, after much vacillation in its action, which, considering the moral issues at stake, cannot be regarded as other than culpable, assented to a really practical measure for detecting and punishing corrupt practices at elections, in 1868—that is, a year after it passed the Reform Act of 1867, and four years before it passed the Ballot Act of 1872. The operation of the Parliamentary Elections Act of 1868 was to transfer from the older tribunal of a special Committee of the House of Commons to one of the Judges of the High Court of Justice the jurisdiction exercised in the case of alleged wrongful practices at elections. The new procedure has the advantage, first, of securing a regular trial in accordance with the well-known principles of judicial evidence, conducted before a judge who, from his training and obvious impartiality, may be expected to preside over the inquiry with as little political concern in the issue as he would have in the event of an