Before Confederation, the right to vote in elections was restricted to a small, wealthy, property-owning elite. Because votes were declared publically, elections were rowdy, highly competitive and even violent.

Democracy: An Unruly Affair

This description of an election in Montréal in 1820 was typical of the early days of democracy, when voting was restricted to a privileged few (who owned enough property or money), and votes had to be declared publicly:

"Passions ran so high that a terrible fight broke out. Punches and every other offensive and defensive tactic were employed. In the blink of an eye table legs were turned into swords and the rest into shields. The combatants unceremoniously went for each others' noses, hair and other handy parts, pulling them mercilessly... The faces of many and the bodies of all attested to the doggedness of the fighting."

The idea that the people should vote for their representatives is a powerful one. Like most historical movements it was resolved in an untidy fashion over many years. In Canada it took almost 150 years to sort out. There was always a great deal of uneasiness about the idea, and not only among the powerful elements of society. Many people felt that democracy would lead to social unrest and "mob rule."

Then, as now, those already holding political power sought to influence the outcome. Before the secret ballot, there was ample opportunity to influence or intimidate voters as they went to declare their choice to an official. Economic intimidation was another, equally blunt instrument. What man could risk voting openly against the wishes of an employer or landlord? The vague property qualifications – required of anyone who wished to vote or run for office – also left the system open to disputes and abuses.

Bribery and Bullying

A series of elections in Lower Canada (now Québec) illustrates the messy nature of early elections. In the riding of Montarville on 1112 October 1858, Alexandre-Édouard Kierzkowski, a civil engineer born in Poland, was returned as the successful candidate. He was credited with 2,056 votes, while John Fraser received 1,809 and Marc Amable Girard received 404. When the poll closed, Fraser filed a complaint charging that Kierzkowski failed to meet the property qualifications of an office-holder. Kierzkowski made a counter-charge that Fraser was guilty of bribery and corruption, having plied the voters with drink. After a year-long investigation, both men were disqualified, Kierzkowski for lacking the proper property qualification and Fraser for his misconduct.

In a subsequent by-election, Kierzkowski lost to Louis Lacoste by 29 votes and he registered a complaint. The persistent Kierzkowski then accepted the nomination for the riding of Verchères. Polling took place on 89 July 1861 and the returning officer reported the results as Kierzkowski 858, Charles Painchaud 856, and the aforementioned John Fraser 1. Painchaud filed the inevitable protest and Kierzkowski was again declared unqualified to sit. Painchaud had little opportunity to enjoy his victory as the legislature was dissolved 12 days later.

These disputes over property qualifications and irregularities were common before voting rights were extended to all adults. In 1793 in Kings County, Nova Scotia, for example, the sitting member procured votes by selling land to voters for £5. In 1850 in Saint John County, New Brunswick, a candidate gained 250 votes by dividing a swamp into 250 fraudulent freeholds. Even the dead were solicited. In 1858, the Journal de Québec reported that votes had been cast "in the names of the living and the dead of all nations."

Secret Ballot

While reformers concentrated their efforts on the issues such as extending the right to vote, and improving the voters' lists and registers, they also knew in their hearts that true democratic elections demanded a secret ballot. The idea was first taken up in the state of Victoria, Australia, which passed the first secret ballot law in March 1856. The conduct of elections improved so dramatically that proponents began singing its praises in every democracy. Britain resisted the change for another 15 years but corruption would not go away and the British Parliament finally passed the Ballot Act in 1872.

Canada's newest province, British Columbia, enacted the first secret ballot legislation in Canada in February 1873. Ontario and the federal government followed in 1874, Québec and Nova Scotia in 1875. Prince Edward Island introduced the secret ballot in 1877, rescinded it in 1879 and did not adopt it permanently until 1913.

"Democracy is the worst political system," runs the old cliché, "except for all the others." While the secret ballot has eliminated intimidation at the polling station, voters today wonder if they are any less manipulated by attack ads, image making and false promises.