HC Deb 19 March 1875 vol 223 cc82-102

, in rising to call attention to the working of the Parliamentary and Municipal Elections Act, and to move for a Select Committee to inquire into the existing machinery of elections, with power to suggest Amendments in the same, said, that last year, when the subject was raised by the hon. and learned Member for Derry (Mr. Charles Lewis) and himself, they were told in public by the right hon. Member for Bradford (Mr. W. E. Forster), the father of the Bill, and in private by the Home Secretary— That the time was coming when it would be really desirable to review the operations of the Act, and to find out exactly what had been the results;.…. that they ought to wait for the Reports of the Judges."—[3 Hansard, ccxviii. 375.] They had waited for the Reports of the Judges, and they had those Reports before them. The case for inquiry could not be better put than it had been put last year by the right hon. Member for Bradford himself, when he said— He did not think the House would underrate the difficulties with regard to the passing of such an Act. It was a perfectly new machinery, of great complication, and exceeding difficulty."—[3 Hansard, ccxviii. 376.] There had been points of difficulty in connection with the Ballot Act, and especially with regard to the marking of papers, raised by a large number of municipal petitions, and decisions had been given, which—to say the least of them—were not in agreement one with the other. In the case of a municipal election at Southport, the Commissioner decided that the ballot papers marked with a cross on the left-hand side, instead of on the right, were perfectly good. In the Athlone case, Chief Justice Monaghan said—of the Court— We give no opinion of the validity of the papers marked on the left-hand side. They had been previously rejected by the sheriff, but luckily they did not affect the result of the election, as the Petitioner had a majority without them. In the case of Wigtown, the Scotch Court had decided that those papers were bad, but in the Southport case, the Commissioner stated from the bench that he knew as a fact that the English Judges thought them good. England one way, Scotland the other, and Ireland neutral. In the case of Athlone, he might say, in passing, that one-thirteenth of the whole of the ballot papers had been more or less improperly marked. The Irish Court, however, decided certain points in that case—namely, that as regarded crosses on the right-hand side of the candidate's name, it was not necessary in Ireland that they should be placed upon the square left blank for them. In the case of the Wigtown Boroughs, Lord Ormadaile had decided that a vote should be rejected which was delivered by means of a cross "designedly made of a peculiar form," and he reserved that vote for the decision of the higher Court in the special case. Lord Ormadaile had also reserved two papers which had been marked in ink, instead of pencil. He had also, in opposition to the opinion of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bradford, said— Numbers.… had a stroke, not a cross, opposite the name of one of the candidates, and that is in no sense in conformity with the statutory direction. Whether it has been done innocently, or accidentally—or in pursuance of a preconcerted design in order to identification—it is impossible to say; but I think that if statutory declarations are to be given any effect to at all, it is very difficult to hold that these papers are marked in compliance with them. He had reserved for the higher Court, in a special case, a paper on which the cross was only a little above the candidate's name, but on the right, "because such a mode of marking the paper might be done for the purpose of identification." He had also rejected a paper the corner of which was torn off, because that might have been done with a view to identification. Lord Neaves, in delivering judgment, said—also in opposition to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bradford— I think it essential to a good vote that the voter should make a cross thus pointed out, and that any mark materially different would be a deviation from what is prescribed, and a failure to fulfil the requirements of the statute. For anyone to put, instead of a cross, a circle or any other geometrical figure, would not be a compliance with the law, independently of the consideration that such a plain and wilful departure from what was intended would suggest strongly the suspicion of some sinister purpose. He rejected absolutely the papers which had lines or ticks on them, instead of crosses. He also rejected all papers on which there were two crosses in the place of one, a line on the back, or any marks in addition to the cross. He had also laid it down that the cross must be on the right-hand side. Lord Ormadaile concurred with Lord Neaves on all points. Lord Benholme differed from his two Colleagues on nearly all. Lord Moncreiff being absent, the opinion of Lord Ormadaile and Lord Neaves stood, and contradicted all the English municipal decisions, the statements repeatedly made in that House by the promoters of the Bill, and the almost uniform practice of the Returning Officers in England at the last Election. Although the Scotch Judges had differed on many of the papers by two to one; they had unanimously agreed that the mark must be one cross, whereas the right hon. Member for Bradford had repeatedly observed that any mark in the proper place was sufficient. He (Sir Charles Dilke) could not think that that was a satisfactory state of things as a preparation for the next General Election in this country. He might add that the Commissioner in the Southport case had decided to count the papers marked on the left, although he had the opposite decision of the Scotch Judges actually before him at the time. He said that he did not think their decision binding on him, and that he thought it wrong, but considered the point open to great doubt. The Commissioner, in delivering judgment in the Southport case, had said— I shall state in my report the difficulty there is in construing the 25th rule of the Ballot Act, and in all probability some enactment may be passed, either for the purpose of amending that section, or getting some declaratory Act explaining what is its meaning. He meant the words "then mark his paper," the question being, what is a sufficient mark? The other points in connection with the inquiry which he (Sir Charles Dilke) proposed, and which had been dealt with by the Judges, were those of the secrecy of the vote, which came up in the case of Bolton, and in the case of Drogheda. The Bolton election had been held by the Judge to be a good one; but, in giving that decision, he had used very strong language with regard to Parliament. He said— If the Legislature have failed in providing safe-guards, the misfortune may be the misfortune of the public, but the fault lies at the door of the Legislature. I am satisfied that a deliberate violation of the provisions with regard to secresy was attempted in this borough. In the case of Drogheda, it had been contended that there was a conspiracy between the sheriff and the under-sheriff to set aside the provisions for secrecy; and the Judge then said that if that had been proved he should have voided the election. He found that it had not been proved—although it was a fact that arrangements had been made by which secrecy was altogether violated—and he reserved for the consideration of the higher Court the question, whether, looking to the fact that the rules of the Ballot Act had in no sense been complied with, the election itself was invalid? Two of the Judges hold that the election was valid, and two that it was invalid. The case, therefore, had been returned to the original Judge, who decided that it was valid. That was, the Judge said, sitting in appeal against a Court of four Judges, and reversing the decision of two of his most learned Colleagues. So much for the cases which had actually been tried and decided. In addition, however, to the actual decisions of the Judges, which, as he had shown, were of a contradictory nature, and left them in more need of inquiry than ever, they had now a very much larger amount of information than the hon. and learned Member for Derry and himself possessed last year, when they brought this question before the House, as to the principles which had guided the various Returning Officers in their practice. He would deal with certain of the details of the Act, one by one, with a view of showing that if they went to another General Election without inquiry, and without clearing up some of the most important points that could be raised, they would go to it with a certainty of Petitions involving scrutiny in a very largo proportion of the constituencies of the country, and scrutiny meant, in the case of large constituencies, an expenditure utterly without parallel. He had there before him—and he had leave to use it, for it had already been partly published—an opinion as to the proper way of marking ballot papers, which was the first point of detail, and the most important, that he would raise. That opinion was given in 1873, at the instance of Mr. Curwood, the Town Clerk of Leeds, by the then Attorney General—the present Lord Chief Justice Coleridge. He might state that Mr. Curwood—who was one of the most skilled town clerks in England, and who had paid much attention to the details of the Ballot Act—had informed him that the aldermen of Leeds, each of whom was a Returning Officer for one of the 12 wards of that borough at the election of councillors, were about equally divided upon the question of what was a properly marked ballot paper; and that the circumstances under which Lord Coleridge's opinion had been obtained were these—That an election had been carried in one ward by the acceptance of papers which had been rejected in all the surrounding wards. Lord Coleridge had given it as his opinion that the cross need not be in the square, but he held that it must be opposite to the name; and he had advised—and his advice had been followed in the counting of votes at the last election of Leeds—that those papers were bad which had been held good by the Irish Court in the Athlone case, where the cross, although made on the right hand side, was a little above or a little below the name. He had also held that a line added to the cross, and that two crosses, were bad—in opposition, therefore, to the opinion of his then Colleague, the father of the Bill, the right hon. Member for Bradford, who had distinctly given the opposite opinion in that House. Lord Coleridge added a note at the end, that where— The voter has put an additional mark, his case appears to me to be directly within the mischief of the statute, and his voting paper may in my opinion he rejected. Of the elections which he (Sir Charles Dilke) had personally attended at the counting of the votes, he might add that in the case of Hackney, the Returning Officer counted all the crosses on the right hand side, even though above or below the name, and held those on the left to be bad. At Chelsea, the Returning Officer held those placed on the left to be just as good as those on the right, and counted every paper, however marked, from which the voter's intention was clear, except those upon which had been written any words of handwriting. The Town Clerk of Glasgow had written to him— In deciding on the sufficiency of marks on papers, I proceeded on the principle that it is not necessary that the mark should he a cross [X], and that any other mark clearly indicating an intention to vote for a particular candidate would suffice. I also considered it not necessary that the mark should he on the right side of the paper.…. It is to my knowledge that a large number of sheriffs of other counties proceeded on the same principle as I did, holding that the directions in the Act as to a cross on the right side of the candidate's name are merely illustrative of one of the best ways of putting the mark—not as prescribing the only way of doing so. But the Scotch Judges have adopted the rule that nothing but a cross on that side is admissible. I think, with deference to them, that this is wrong. I understand that the English Judges take the view on which I went. That was to say that the practice of the largest city in Scotland was contrary to the decision of the highest Court of Scotland, and was supported by no decision but a municipal one in England—for it was idle to speak of mere hear-say as to the opinion of the English Judges. He maintained that that was not a satisfactory state of things. Hon. Members would be able, from their own experience, to confirm the statement that there were hardly two boroughs in England where exactly the same decisions had been given, which must certainly, in the case of a hotly-fought General Election next time, lead to an incredible number of Petitions accompanied by costly scrutiny. Mr. Pearson, an alderman of Stockport, had made a suggestion which ought to be considered by any Committee that might sit upon this subject—namely, that the ballot papers should be dark in colour with the exception of the square intended for the cross. Mr. Pearson had printed a large number of various forms of ballot paper of that kind, and they certainly made matters very much clearer for the voter than they were at present. Mr. Rayner, the experienced Town Clerk at Liverpool, had expressed his opinion in favour of Mr. Pearson's view. Mr. Pearson had been led to make that suggestion, by the fact that at the last municipal election at Stockport; the votes set aside amounted in the majority of the wards, although the election was very close, to 10 per cent of the total number polled; so that, subject to petition—and, as he had shown, the decisions on petition had been of an opposite character, one from another—the decisions of the ward aldermen as to the validity of doubtful votes gave, in many cases, the majority to one or other of the candidates at their discretion. A Committee would also probably reopen the question of whether the putting the cross against the name of the candidate for whom one voted was as simple a plan as that of striking out the name of the candidate against whom one voted, and judging from the letters that he had received from town clerks he should say that a majority of town clerks of English boroughs, who were on this subject the most experienced persons, considered that striking out was the better plan, although he himself did not share that opinion. One wrote, A voter says, 'I shan't support Blank'—'Then cross him off,' is the reply, and the vote is lost, even if it is not counted the wrong way. The Town Clerk of Tiverton, like the Town Clerk of Leeds, had obtained a high legal opinion as to what, under the present law, was a properly-marked paper. In the Tiverton ease, he (Sir Charles Dilke) had not leave to name the distinguished lawyer—also a Member of the late Government—whose opinion had been thus given, but he might say that it was directly at variance with the opinion of his learned Colleague, Lord Coleridge, for he held that the Act permitted of any mark—for instance, a mere tick—to be made, and that the Schedule was only directory, and not necessarily to be strictly followed so as to exclude votes. At Tiverton, where the contest was very close, a large proportion of votes, had, according to the town clerk, been rejected on account of two crosses being made instead of one, to indicate the voter's wish to plump, and of the cross being made on the name itself. Leaving the question of how the papers should be marked, he came to one only second to it in importance, and that was the subject of stamping. He had circulars in his possession from two rival firms, each of whom stated that there was nothing in the world so easy as to forge the marks of their rivals; and having carefully examined the subject, he was bound to say that both were right. Messrs. Shaw and Son, who had supplied a vast number of Returning Officers with perforating machines, and Messrs. Loe-wenheim, who manufactured the embossing machinery, abused one another in the choicest English. Now, the perforating machine had been most popular with the past Returning Officers, because it would do for ever and could be set to any design that might be wished. Mr. Gresham told the Committee on Returning Officers last year that— The perforator is an arrangement of pins of such a character, that if a man takes out his voting paper and shows it to a mechanic outside, and that if the mechanic has one of those perforators and arranges the pins to make the particular mark, he forges it within ten minutes. I myself will undertake to forge it in ten minutes. Now, he believed that statement to be absolutely true. Nevertheless, town clerks of such vast experience as Mr. Curwood in Leeds and those of others of the biggest boroughs in Ireland, were using those perforators and proclaiming their merits to their less experienced colleagues. The perforator worked very easily, and was therefore popular with Returning Officers; the embossing machine worked more stiffly—and whereas the perforating machine was pretty and simple, and spoilt very few papers, but was Hable to be forged in ten minutes—on the other hand, the embossing machine, which took longer to forge, worked so stiffly that when a Returning Officer's hands got tired the mark made became so faint, that in the case of the Chelsea Election, for instance, they had to count—and did count by agreement—800 papers which would have been rejected by a judge, there having been on them but a very slight trace of the machine, they being equally divided between the two sides and not affecting the result of the election, and there being no reason to believe that any forgery had taken place; but still, they had only such a mark upon them as could, in fact, have been imitated by a thumb-nail. Sir Joseph Heron told him (Sir Charles Dilke) that at Manchester the number of unstamped papers was very large. But the whole question of stamping was one of exceeding difficulty. There was no check whatever upon "ballot-stuffing" frauds, except the official stamp on a ballot paper. A scrutiny cost so many thousands of pounds that an unscrupulous agent would run a good deal of risk to place his man at the head of the poll on the first occasion, and take his chance of a scrutiny. Now, he ventured to say that while the perforating machine was capable of easy forgery, there were very few large constituencies where the embossing machine was used, in which a sufficient number of papers were not wholly unstamped, or so improperly stamped that they would not have passed a Judge, as to affect the result of a return; and at the next General Election, when these things had been found out and appreciated by agents, a very pretty state of things for the lawyers would be the result. He might state a fact which came to his personal notice in the last election for Hackney, when he was representing the present Members in a booth on polling-day. The deputy Returning Officer, who stood in front of him, finding that when the pressure of voters was great, he could not supply them fast enough with papers, stamped a considerable number of papers before they were applied for, during those moments when there was less to do. He cautioned him as to the illegality of this proceeding, and as to its probable inconveniences, but he continued nevertheless. At last that happened which might have been foreseen—namely, that forgetting the point up to which he had stamped in advance, he issued a large number of papers in a wholly unstamped condition, and thus disfranchised a considerable number of voters. He had already expressed his opinion of the perforating shifting stamps. The embossed stamps, if frequently changed, would be good enough, if they worked more easily; but the designs being complicated ones, it was essential that they should be clearly struck. When the hand got tired, that was rarely the case. He held in his hand the Glasgow stamp, which consisted of the arms of the City of Glasgow, the change in various years being made by a change in the shape of the rim which surrounded the arms. It was essential, therefore, that the rim should be clearly shown. Now, while some marks showed very fine, the rim itself did not show sufficiently clearly to prevent fraud. He might add that the provision that the official mark should be visible on both sides was rarely complied with by the embossing machine, although it was essential to the proper working of the Act. Of course, if the presiding officers really insisted on seeing the official stamp on the back of the paper, before allowing it to go into the box, which it was their duty to do, these difficulties would not arise. But when the voters were polling fast, the presiding officer was too busy, either stamping, or looking out, or ticking, as the case might be, to attend to the marking of every paper placed in the box. The one additional cause of the weakness of the mark in many cases was, that the clerks often stamped in batches—stamping, say, a dozen of papers at a time, instead of each separately as they ought to do. He thought that stamping papers in advance ought to be distinctly prohibited, for in Hackney, when the clerk in front of him went out for about five minutes to his dinner, he could have abstracted from his book a large number of papers already stamped, and after making crosses on them he could have got them put into the box by voters at a later period of the day. It was difficult to devise means to make deputy Returning Officers carry out the law; but inasmuch as the whole of the Ballot Act depended for its proper working, upon not only the honesty, but also the ability, of the presiding officers at the several stations, it was of great importance to direct their attention, in even a higher degree than had as yet been done, to the need that there was to prevent the putting into the boxes unstamped papers. At the present moment, many Returning Officers did not look at each paper as it was placed in the box, in order to recognize their stamp, and unless they did so, there was an opening for any possible amount of fraud. No doubt, it might be said that fraud was always possible at elections as regarded the effect of the first declaration of the poll, and that the only remedy lay, and must lie, in the provision of allowing Petitions. But take the case of a Radical ward in an equally divided borough, and a partizan presiding officer at a period of the day when voting was going on fast—he might disfranchise enough of voters to turn the election, by making an improper use of his stamping machine; that was, by not sufficiently clearly stamping the papers; and there was no means of setting this right by petition, but the contrary—that was to say, while the votes might possibly pass muster at the original counting, they would certainly be rejected by an Election Judge upon a scrutiny. Those which he had mentioned were the principal points on which he rested the case for inquiry. But in addition to those points there were a good many smaller ones, which ought to be dealt with by any Committee that might be appointed. For instance, the Act of Parliament was very far from being clear as to the attendance of the agents of the candidates at the counting of the votes. Certainly, the candidates ought to be represented, where a number of clerks were employed to count, by as many agents as there were counting clerks, as otherwise there was no cheek upon dishonesty on the part of the clerks. At the present moment, some Returning Officers allowed that to be done, but others forbade it. Then, again, there was the point of time, of which they spoke last year, the time allowed by the Act being wholly insufficient in the case of a borough so large as any of the metropolitan boroughs, Manchester or Liverpool. There was also a provision as to illiterates, to which they alluded last year, which in some parts of the country had, in its present form, produced much inconvenience. The new law also appeared to be far from clear as to the number of personating agents at each station, which the candidate might appoint. The law with regard to the appointment of agents to attend at the counting of the votes fell under the new Act. It was contained in these words only: "The candidates may respectively appoint agents to attend the counting of votes," and nobody could really say what those words meant, and whether the Returning Officer would be upheld by the Courts of Law on a Petition, in those cases where he had decided that only one agent of the candidate should he allowed to attend the counting, although there were many clerks engaged in it. On the other hand, as to the attendance of agents at the booths, the law was in such a state that it allowed the appointment of any number, who might crowd into the booth in the form of a perfect mob after they had once made their declarations of secrecy. The clause in the old Act, which was still in force, said that it should be lawful for any candidate to appoint an agent or agents to attend at each or any of "the booths." Sir Joseph Heron, the experienced Town Clerk of Manchester said, that the mode of counting ought to be prescribed by law, and he agreed with him. The numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4, which were placed on the left-hand side of the candidates' names, caused some confusion and were in the Act, he believed, by mistake. They had been put in to guide the illiterate voter, and were retained after another provision for the illiterate voter had been made. They confused the voter, and it was questionable whether they should not be omitted. On the other hand, whilst those were subjects which ought to be considered, there were many points connected with the Ballot Act which ought to be held to be outside the scope of the inquiry—for instance, the question whether there should or should not be a scrutiny. In the year in which the Ballot Bill passed, the Lords introduced a scrutiny, and they had weakened or made useless the clause inflicting penalties on the violation of secrecy. They had also somewhat relaxed the provisions relating to the illiterate voter. The two latter points remained in a condition of confusion, and needed inquiry. The former, or provision for the scrutiny, although personally strongly opposed to it, and although believing that it involved an immense amount of difficulty, he nevertheless felt bound to regard as an essential part of their present electoral law, and as one which must be viewed as being, until 1880, outside the scope of inquiry. Everything that could be said against the scrutiny, and by way of showing how unnecessarily it complicated the machinery of election, had been said by Sir Henry James, in 1872. Although the hours of polling had been dealt with by the Lords in the Ballot Act, still, as the hours had not been affected by the Bill in the form in which it ultimately passed, he should almost regard that as being also outside the scope of inquiry for the present. The strong point in the case for inquiry at the present time was that when the Committee sat and when the three Bills were discussed, even those Members who took the greatest interest in the question had less knowledge of the working of the Ballot than was now possessed by almost any hon. Member of the House, and it was curious now to look back, and notice what extravagant blunders were made and what misapprehensions prevailed. He made no allusion to a number of other points which had been raised last year by the hon. and learned Member for Derry and himself, because it seemed to him that the case, as it stood, was a sufficient one, and any one who wished to see them could find them in Hansard. By way of general remark he would say only this, that while opponents of the Ballot in general—if there were any, now that it received the support of the Conservative party—would probably desire inquiry in order to reveal the weakness, as they must think it, of the system; the strongest friends of the Ballot ought certainly to wish for it, because if they went to another General Election under the Ballot, without having cleared up these hard points, and all the wire-pullers in the constituencies being thoroughly informed upon the weak points of the Act, and having had ample time to consider the best modes of dealing with them, they would certainly have such a number of Petitions and scrutinies as to cause an outcry to be raised against the Ballot itself, and to seriously weaken the chance of its being continued when the new Bill was introduced—as it would have to be in 1880, immediately after the General Election itself. The hon. Baronet concluded by moving for the appointment of a Select Committee.


, in seconding the Motion, said, that the exhaustive speech of the hon. Baronet the Member for Chelsea (Sir Charles Dilke) had left him but little to say in favour of an immediate inquiry being granted. On neither side of the House would there be any disposition to look upon the Ballot in an unfriendly spirit. In the main, both sides were actuated by one motive, which was to make such amendments in the Act as their past experience of its working told them to be necessary to prevent anything like wholesale disfranchisement. The old system had three advantages—namely, a minimum power of disfranchisement on the part of the Returning Officer, a minimum of disfranchisement in point of fact, and general uniformity of practice; and the new system had three correlative defects—namely, great power of disfranchisement, great disfranchisement in fact, and great diversity. The result was, that a great loss of votes took place under the change. At the last Tipperary election hundreds of votes were pronounced had, and at the last Galway Borough election, out of 1,200 votes, 190 were bad. The practical disfranchisement of a constituency might result from two causes: either from ignorance, or incapacity on the part of the Returning Officer. At the last election for Tyrone it was found that an entire set of voting papers at one of the booths were without the official mark which it was the duty of the Returning Officer to place on them, and all the votes to which they related were in consequence rejected, without any default on the part of the voters, and without any means of setting the matter right. That fact proved the necessity of guarding quite as much against incapacity in the Returning Officer as in the voter. With respect to securing accuracy in the counting of the votes, that was entirely a matter of detail; but the very fact that it was a matter of detail—a matter at the same time of signal importance—formed one of the most cogent reasons why it should be remitted, amongst other things, to a Select Committee. The question of diminishing the expenses at elections ought also to form a subject of inquiry before the Select Committee. Both sides of the House were interested in taking care that everything should be done that was necessary to render the Ballot system perfect in all its details, especially where its defects led to the disfranchisement of voters, and he trusted that the Government would grant the proposed inquiry, as the interests of the constituents, above all things, required that the existing defects of the system should receive the earliest attention. By doing so, there would probably be few objections raised in future to a renewal of the Act.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "a Select Committee he appointed to inquire into the existing machinery of Elections, with power to suggest amendments in the same,"—(Sir Charles W. Dilke,)

—instead thereof.

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."


said, he should hardly have ventured to intrude on the attention of the House, had he not rather a strong personal case to put before them. He was returned for the county of Renfrewshire by a majority of 90 votes at the last General Election, and like all successful candidates, he was highly delighted at the result, because there were circumstances in his case which rendered his return rather a surprise to himself. He was surprised and not delighted however, a few weeks after, to find that a very remarkable Petition had been presented against his return. It was, in fact, a Petition quite unexampled in the history of elections in this country. It was simply this—There was no question as to the formalities, there was no question, either, as the validity of the votes recorded; but two ratepayers, under the powers of the Act, declared that in their opinion the votes had not been correctly counted. There was no primâ facie ground for supposing that they had been wrongly counted, because the agents of both parties, as well as the Returning Officer, had been present at the counting. However, these two electors declared their belief that an error had been committed, and according to Scotch form the question was brought before the Court of Session, first on the point of revelancy, as to whether there was a primâ facie case against him. He had to engage counsel, and he secured the services of the best to be had, and he was necessarily put to very considerable expense. The question of revelancy was decided against him and in favour of the Petitioners, on the ground that there could be no better instance of the invalidity of an election than the fact that the candidate who had polled the smallest number of votes should be returned. The objectors said—"We believe that the votes were not properly counted;" the other side said—"We believe that they were properly counted;" and, consequently, the point of revelancy was sustained. At great expense and annoyance to himself the Petition was tried by the Court of Session; the numbers having been brought before the Court, were counted, and in the end it was found that he had been returned by two more votes than had first been credited to him. That was exceedingly satisfactory; but on the other hand, some people might say that was an argument in favour of bringing these charges, seeing that after all a mistake had been made; but he thought the House would see that the successful candidate was entirely at the mercy of two voters who declared that they did not think the numbers had been correctly counted. What he would suggest was very simple. That there should be a legal obligation on the agents of the respective candidates not to separate, or declare the result of the poll until they were agreed as to the correctness of the numbers polled on each side; and, further, that each agent should be bound to make a statutory declaration before the Returning Officer that he was satisfied with the correctness of the counting—such declaration being final and conclusive as to the question of numbers, but to have no bearing on the validity of the votes. Such a Petition as that to which he referred could not then be afterwards brought. It seemed to him extraordinary that some machinery had not been devised to settle the numbers on the night of the poll. He believed his was the only instance in which a Petition disputing the correctness of the counting had been presented, and he spoke to the late Attorney General on the subject, and he thought the matter was one worthy of the consideration of the present Law Officers of the Crown.


said, there was great hardship caused by the rejection of votes in cases where the presiding officer in any one of the polling booths had placed a mark upon the voting paper by which the voter could be identified. The provision of the Act on that point was intended to prevent the voter making known his vote in order to claim a reward; it was never meant that a voter who had voted in perfect good faith should be disfranchised by the act of another person. The result of the County of Leitrim election last year depended upon the reception or rejection of votes of that character. The matter had never been authoritatively decided, but it demanded careful consideration, for the objection on this account threw an enormous amount of power into the hands of the presiding officer, and it was therefore one that particularly wanted deciding at the hands of a Committee.


said, he thought the House ought to feel very much indebted to the hon. Baronet the Member for Chelsea (Sir Charles Dilke) for having brought the matter under their consideration, and he had made it quite clear that there ought to be some inquiry on the subject, so that the victims of the Ballot Act as it stood might not be martyred again when another election took place. The hon. and gallant Member for Renfrewshire (Colonel Mure) and his own were the only instances, he believed, of Petitions in Scotland, and that might be taken as a satisfactory result of the working of the Act in that country; but when great hardship fell upon any individual by the bad wording of a clause, or the difficulty of interpreting provisions, it was fair that they should come to this House and ask, at all events, that something should be done to repeal or alter those clauses. He was returned for the Wigtown Burghs, certainly by the narrow majority of 2, and every means was taken to ascertain whether or not he had been actually returned. The Returning Officer declared his election valid, and he accordingly took his seat in this House. But the opposite party embraced an early opportunity of presenting a Petition against him. The investigation into that Petition showed that the polling sheriffs had neglected to stamp three of his papers and he was disqualified from sitting in this House. That was a hard case, because the act of the polling sheriff, whether done advertently or inadvertently, was sufficient to vitiate an election. He was not there to impute anything to those officers who otherwise presided so efficiently at his election, but he considered the House ought to watch over the interests of its Members. Had his case come before an Election Committee of the House of Commons, he would not have been put to the annoyance and expense of a second election. That case was brought before the Court in Scotland, and some of the most learned on the Scotch Bench set themselves to decipher what the Act meant, and whether the Schedule was not to be taken as part of the Act or not, and whether the spirit or the mere letter of the Act was to govern any decision arrived at. The questions were argued by counsel by the hour, and the public could form but one opinion, and that was that the Act was inefficient as it stood, because what had been declared in many other instances to be good votes, were declared to be bad in his case; for instance, whether if the cross was a little to the right or left, whether it was a little above or a little below the name. After all this annoyance and anxiety, he came to his second election, when he increased his majority by six votes, but still it was thought necessary to petition against him, in the hope of finding out some flaw. A second time he had to undergo this annoyance, and one or two papers were again found not to be stamped at all. The polling sheriffs, who were engaged at great expense to the candidates, were alone to blame, it being no fault either of him or the constituency, and his second election was very nearly being voided through the carelessness and indifference of these officers. He thanked the House for having listened so patiently to what he had told them, and which was in his case a personal grievance.


said, that his hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea (Sir Charles Dilke) had in his very fair statement referred to him so often that he trusted the House would permit him to say a few words. Having had to discharge the duty of framing the Ballot Act, he had looked forward to the Motion with a good deal of anxiety, lest a great deal of fault might justly have been found with the machinery. The clauses which set forth that machinery went through 14 or 15 revisions, and the Bill itself through a second edition; and it was due to himself to say that such complaints as had been made on the subject were not owing to any want of care, for he had taken great pains in framing the measure, and had the assistance of an able draftsman. But, besides the difficulty of adjusting an entirely new election machinery, there was much difficulty in carrying a measure of that kind through the House of Commons; and frequent alterations in Committee were a great danger to the correctness of the Bill. He was glad to find that no more flaws than those mentioned had been discovered in the Bill. As to the difficulty about the cross, he could speak as to what was the intention of the House in passing the Act—namely, that there was no intention of making the use of the cross compulsory, neither was it to be a disqualification if the voter did not put the cross in exactly the place or in the manner set out in the Schedule. The body of the Act simply required the voter to mark his paper; the first Schedule which laid down the actual rules was to the same effect; and the only allusion to the cross was in the last Schedule, containing directions for the guidance of voters. It would be most dangerous to the freedom of voting if the ruling of the Scotch Judges on this point were to affect elections generally, and in the result a great many fair and honest voters would be disqualified. That difficulty, however, might be met without a Select Committee. The House might strike out this direction in the Schedule, so as to render the present ruling in Scotland impossible in the future. His hon. Friend had brought forward several other blemishes. With regard to the illiterate voter, he could not help thinking that, with their experience, if the House had to pass the Act over again, there would be a large majority in favour of the provision which he had first brought in—namely, that there should be no special provision made for the illiterate voter. A very large proportion of those voters had not made use of the provision of the Act; but it was stated to have been used for the purpose of delaying an election. As to the Motion of his hon. Friend, he thought the time had come when it might be desirable for the Government to discover whether it was needful to amend the machinery of the Act or not, and he felt the most satisfactory mode of doing that would be by a Committee. It was for the Government to say whether it would be convenient to have a Committee that Session; but he thought they ought to have one in good time, before they were sent back to their constituents. Whatever might be the power given to the Committee, however it might be constituted, and whatever might be its Report, he thought the House should not lose sight of this consideration—that there was danger in prescribing absolute uniformity of practice. They must leave some discretion to the voter and to the Returning Officer. It was a difficult matter to guarantee uniformity, which might result in disqualification of the voter. On the other hand, he thought that any reasonable ground of doubt ought to be removed. He would only say further that he thought the time had come when inquiry would be advantageous.


said, that whatever might be the opinion of individual Members as regarded the advantages or disadvantages of secret voting as established by the Ballot Act of 1872, they were all agreed in this—that inasmuch as it had been determined that that system should be adopted for a certain number of years, they should give it a fair trial. It would not, however, be receiving a fair trial if, when defects in its machinery were pointed out, measures were not taken for the purpose of curing them. He admitted, therefore, that it was desirable that an inquiry into its working should be instituted, for the purpose of ascertaining how improvements in it could be made. The hon. Baronet the Member for Chelsea had drawn attention to a number of defects in the practical working of the system, and, certainly many of them were very serious; and, on the hon. Baronet's showing, there was a grave question to be dealt with. It would be within the recollection of the House that in the course of the debate last year, the Secretary of State intimated that, inasmuch as the system of Ballot had had the test of one General Election, it would be desirable that its working should be considered before another election took place; and he believed there was now a very prevalent feeling that it would be advisable ere long to investigate the working of the Act. The hon. Baronet had adverted to a circumstance which pressed on the Government at the present time—namely, the number of Committees of importance now sitting. This rendered it undesirable to appoint a Committee during the present Session; but he (the Attorney General) felt he was in a position, on the part of the Government, to make this statement—that next Session they would be prepared either to deal with the question by legis- lation, or by moving for the appointment of a Select Committee, with a view to legislation taking place. Under those circumstances, he suggested to his hon. Friend that the present Motion should be withdrawn, and the matter left with the Government on the understanding he had pointed out.


said, that the suggestion of the hon. and learned Gentleman entirely met his view, and he would accordingly consent to withdraw the Motion.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.