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Ritual and Routine. The Space of the Vote Bryan Davies

Student Registration No. 080209230


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Chartist Secret Ballot proposal explained. seat of deputy returning officer assistant handing ballot balls to voter

Agents of candidates look on making sure there is no foul play

entrance to ballot box on stage

1. Voter enters the balloting place, after having certificates checked at the door, and is then registered at the desk.

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2.Voter makes his way past the agents of the candidates in the middle pen.

voter leaving building after vote

3.Voter places ball in voting machine in one of five holes, hidden from the onlookers by a screen.

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constables examine certificates and stop forced entry

4.Voter appears again to the audience and makes his way past them towards the exit.

voter makes way to stage and ballot box

desk of registration clerk

Chartist voting machine holes connected to counting mechanism, each one represents a differnt candidate counters record the number of votes for each canditate

brass voting ball

partition wall ensures secrecy for voters

a wooden flap allows presiding officer to count the votes, but prevents this information from being accessed by voters before they cast their ballot ball


Perhaps Chartist pamphlets did not communicate the link between electoral reform and the price of bread as well as they could have. The movement has been criticised for not talking in the language of the working classes; ‘Chartism failed because it was not sufficient of a working class movement’ (Royle, 1980: 93). That is the language of Chartism never outgrew the language of radicalism and remained assimilated to middle class liberalism; ‘Chartists were acutely politically aware people, as their writing in their newspapers make clear. We may presume that some who read those articles were also capable of understanding their general importance and taking their lessons to heart but we do know how far down the ranks this sort of political education could penetrate’ (Royle, 1980: 7). In comparison William Cobbett (1763 -1835) gained massive support by using the language of the pub and the farmyard in his publication, ‘Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register’ (nicknamed the Tupenny Trash) to take up the plight of the rural poor (Schama, 2000). Certainly the Chartist movement petered out, after the arrest and deportation of the key protagonists as rallies turned into riots, the Newport uprising in Wales saw Chartists take up arms only to be quickly defeated. Chartism was wound up in 1860 without the reforms being implemented (Ashley, 2008: 109) and it has been said that its main achievement for the working class was not the political reforms but in education, Ramsden Balmfort, the son of a Huddersfield Chartist handloom weaver concluded his verdict of the movement as ‘an excellent means of political education for the working classes’ (Royle, 1980: 130). Why then is it important to understand these issues for this study? I believe they shed light on why ‘The People’s Charter’ may have started with a spatial/architectural proposal. The drawing of the secret ballot ceremony was, and still is, a way of educating in a manner that working men could envisage (literacy has been estimated to have been 66 per cent in 1830 based on 35


28.Peterloo Masacre, 16 August 1819, Manchester, inked drawing, digital copy, (Ashley 2008:100)

who could sign their name in the parish register (Suarez and Turner)). The Charter pamphlet was published by the cabinetmaker William Lovett in May 1838 (Ashley, 2008: 104). I believe Lovett would have had a practical down to earth view, applying his ability at a craft to generate a physical ‘made’ solution to the conceptual and legal problem in hand. Is it any wonder that a large proportion of the drawing is taken up with a special voting cabinet (an invention attributed on the document to Mr Benjamin Jolly of York Street, Bath). The illustration painted a picture in the minds eye of what a fair election might be in the absence of the obvious and familiar aspects of the drinking and processions of the century before. E.g. it made the electoral process seem more of an event and spectacle to the layman at the same time as proposing its negation. I think Lovett’s intention was to use the drawing of architectural space to cross class and educational boundaries. ‘The People’s Charter’ also marks a crux point in the fundamental shift in British social and political evolution from ritual processions of the common place corrupt elections that inspired Dickens and Hogarth, to the fairer, ordered democratic elections we now take for granted. The drawing shows parts of both; the ritual space, the spectacle and theatrics of the polling literally taking place on a stage in front of an audience, the drama of the occasion only heightened by the temporary disappearance of the main protagonist (the voter) behind a screen. But it also includes a secret ballot, using the cold machinery with dials and accuracy that developed with the rapid machine age, the routine and logistics of the franchise. The Chartist illustration marks a tipping point both for the beginnings of electoral reform but also the point at which the scales fell on the side of rules, secrecy, a deliberate absence of information, colour or ceremony, towards a veil of neutrality and bureaucracy in the polling station. 36


Ritual and Routine  

A study of the spatial rituals surrounding polling stations.

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