The Committee of Elections under Walpole
Following each general election defeated candidates who claimed they had been the victims of corruption or malpractice by the winning side could petition the House of Commons in the hope of initiating a hearing of their cases. This might lead either to a confirmation of the result, or to its invalidation with the petitioner being declared the lawfully elected MP.
The House could consider disputed elections in one of two ways. MPs might call for particularly controversial cases to be ‘heard at the bar’, to be considered, that is, in full session of the House with legal counsel stating the case for each side before a final decision was voted on by MPs. During the early Hanoverian period, however, it became more common for disputed elections to be referred to the Committee of Privileges and Elections. The committee was appointed and named at the beginning of each session, although in practice all MPs were entitled to attend its meetings, which were held in the chamber of the House. The committee had been open to all members since 1673. Although in this sense it resembled the Committee of the Whole House, it differed in that once appointed it remained in existence for the entire session; the Committee of the Whole House could sit only when the House was in session. The chairman of the committee was regarded as the next senior figure in the House after the Speaker, and in 1715 the role was described as ‘the second Chair … entrusted with the Rights and Liberties of the Commons’.
The Committee of Elections – which also deliberated in occasional cases where individual MPs’ claimed infringement of their rights of ‘privilege’ – was, at least in theory, a judicial body acting to judge each case impartially on its merits. In reality, however, proceedings were often highly politicized and were flagrantly used by the ministry as opportunities to unseat opposition MPs in favour of ministerial supporters. This often meant that regardless of the justice of the cause, the ministry was able to use its majority in the Commons to engineer the unseating of government opponents. It was a riskier venture for opponents to try to unseat pro-government MPs, and was less frequently tried. In Queen Anne’s day the committee’s machinery was frequently used in the parliamentary battles between whig and tory. Under George I it became an instrument of oligarchical Whig government, enabling the expulsion of dissident Whigs as well as of Tories, and the addition of further support to government majorities.
Most disputed elections concerned borough constituencies rather than the counties, which were far more difficult and costly to challenge. The costly Yorkshire case of 1736, which was abandoned after a hearing lasting many days, was an exception. The central issue in many cases was the right to vote. Successful argument by counsel on these questions could lead to the invalidation of large portions of total votes cast, so that on recalculation the winning candidate might find himself with only a minority and his opponent declared duly elected. Disputes also frequently concerned the conduct of elections, particularly allegations of partiality and breaches of electoral law against the local returning officer.
The hearing of election cases invariably dominated the proceedings of the first session of each parliament, and quite often spilled into the second. Election hearings took place on three or four days of the week, and would begin once the House had adjourned – usually in the afternoon – and carry on often until midnight, if not later. One of the longest sittings on record occurred on 22 Dec. 1741 on the Westminster election. Beginning at 10am, it lasted 19 hours, finishing at five the next morning. The intensity of some disputes attracted considerable public attention. During the Flint Boroughs hearing in March 1728 it was reported that the proceedings were watched from the galleries by large numbers of ladies ‘as though to see some curious entertainment’. MPs, however, invariably complained of the tediousness involved, especially if they had made promises to support particular candidates. Elections were often very expensive to contest, particularly for the more populous constituencies where large numbers of witnesses had to be accommodated in London while cases were pending. It was hardly surprising that petitions were often withdrawn.
Once a decision had been voted on in committee, the chairman formally reported it to the House. It was then up to the House in full session either to endorse or to reverse the committee’s resolution. It was usually a chance for the candidate earmarked to lose his seat to regain it if he was able to muster effective support.
After the fall of Walpole in 1742 the hearing of elections played a far less prominent part in political sparring between government and opposition. There had been a gradual decline in petitions, from a peak of 99 following the 1722 election, to 61 in 1727, 69 in 1734, 43 in 1741, and only 17 after the 1747 election. Thus it became uncommon for election disputes to be occasions for party skirmishing. In 1770 Grenville’s Election Act entirely changed the procedure for hearing disputes, and instead they were referred to a select committee of a limited number of MPs chosen by ballot.