Corrupt practices and the reform of voting behaviour in Britain, France and the United States, c. 1789–1914
in The many lives of corruption
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Comparative analysis of the history of electoral corruption is practically non-existent. This chapter seeks to establish some of the coordinates around which such accounts might be written and does so by examining the trajectory of electoral reform in Britain, France and the United States, from roughly the late eighteenth century until the eve of the First World War. Above all, it aims to place Britain in the wider context of two countries which also witnessed expanding male suffrage and increasingly competitive elections. Such developments encouraged unprecedented efforts to influence the outcome of elections, thereby prompting reflection on the nature of canvassing and voting, which in turn led to attempts at regulation. New norms of behaviour, however, were by no means automatically endorsed, and it would be wrong to suggest a linear process of electoral purification. In each country reformist aspirations had to contend with deep-seated customary norms, while the meaning of ‘corrupt practices’ was widely contested. Nonetheless, it will be argued that by the early twentieth-century anticorruption legislation had eradicated the most egregious manifestations of electoral malpractice. Old norms of communal interaction and influence gradually gave way to a conception of voting based on the security of individual expression. Crucially, this comparative approach allows for a reappraisal of Britain’s peculiar route to mass democracy: although something of a laggard in other respects, here Britain led the way, and was the first to introduce a fully secure secret ballot and a non-partisan culture of electoral administration.

The many lives of corruption

The reform of public life in modern Britain, 1750–1950

Editors: Ian Cawood and Tom Crook


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