From the 1200s in England, counties and towns sent two representatives to Parliament. Sheriffs ran the local elections, in which voters were enfranchised by being freeholders or potwallopers. Presumably the candidates receiving the greatest number of votes won, but were the two seats elected on the same or different slates? How many votes did each voter get?

These elections were means of patronage and bribery; the outcome was often predetermined by local power structures. However, I want to know about the origins or antecedents of the plurality voting rule.

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    I know the electors had two votes, not one. They could cast them for different candidates, or only cast one of them. Interestingly and perhaps pertinently, MPs have two votes on bills in the House of Commons, but they can only cast one vote for Aye and one for No, not two Ayes or two Noes!
    – Ne Mo
    Commented Oct 23, 2016 at 19:13
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    One other thing: multi member constituencies persisted until after world war 2, so it should be easy to find out how they decided who was elected the number 2 MP.
    – Ne Mo
    Commented Oct 24, 2016 at 22:24
  • @Ne Mo, thank you for this useful information! it's probably time for me to ask a new question specifically on the question of the multiple members. Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 0:04

1 Answer 1


Alright, I am answering from memory of things I have read without quoting specific sources, but this may give you things to search if you want to verify.

Until the partial reforms of 1832 most boroughs and counties elected two members but there were exceptions e.g. in Wales where they only elected one, because of the lower population. The City of London (and I think the largest County, Yorkshire) elected 4. After 1832 some 3 member constituencies were created, it seeming more logical to people at the time, if a county was under-represented, to keep it as one constituency but give it an extra member rather than divide it into separate constituencies as we would now.

I do not know what happened in 3 or 4 member constituencies but in 2 member constituencies electors had 2 votes, but were not obliged to cast both of them. To vote for one candidate only was called a 'plumper'.

There was no requirement for voters to be literate and voting was by voicing one's choice in public at the hustings in the town square or county town, so voters had to be aware that their customers, landlord, neighbours etc. would know how they voted. This was especially true as in most counties the local elite was quite small and in smaller towns most people would know most other people.

Consequently there was some social pressure not to cause local rifts and bad feeling by contesting the election without good reason. Many constituency elections were uncontested. Either the 2 leading factions/ families would compromise that they would nominate one member each, or there was a sufficiently dominant faction or land-owner that it was pointless or unwise to stand against them.

The two member thing goes back to the first Parliament. I do not know if any record survives as to why it was preferred originally, but people then might have found it hard to understand the modern attitude that a single person may be considered adequately able to speak for a whole constituency.

Most but not all constituencies were converted to single member constituencies under Gladstone in 1885, but as another person has said a few remained until 1945.

  • Thank you! Apparently the mechanism is called "bloc voting". Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 0:09

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