The registration of military voters

Many soldiers are granted the right to vote for the first time

The Representation of the People Act, 1918 was given Royal Assent on 6 February 1918. It extended the franchise to all men aged 21 and over and to women aged 30 and over who resided in the constituency or who occupied land or premises with a rateable value above £5, or whose husbands did. The passing of the Act brought millions of people into the franchise for the first time and required a huge expansion of the electoral registers. With so many being away from home on military duty, it also required careful management and the establishment of absent voters lists.

The method of collecting the necessary information within the army was defined in Army Council Instruction 540 of 16 May 1918.

Key paragraphs

The Representation of the People Act, 1918, makes special provision for the registration of members of the Military Forces. Every officer and man who is a British subject and will have attained the age of 19 years of age on 15 April 1918 is entitled to be registered as a Parliamentary elector for any constituency in which he would have been residing but for his service in the Army. A statement made by him in the “prescribed” form and verified in the “prescribed” manner that he would have had the necessary qualification for being registered but for his service, is to be treated as sufficient proof of qualification if there is no evidence to the contrary. …

Registration

The Act having become law, registration officers in all constituencies will immediately commence to prepare the registers and lists of absent voters …

Officers and soldiers serving at home:
a form of postcard (Army Form W.3940) embodying the “prescribed” form has been approved and will be distributed by officers commanding units amongst all officers and soldiers serving under their command. [This also applied to officers commanding hospitals, for men serving with that hospital and also those who were patients at the time][The officers commanding units would be responsible for obtaining a stock of forms]  [Attention was drawn to ensuring the accuracy of stating the man’s unit and number and how to ensure the correct voter registration officer’s address was selected and inserted] [The officers commanding units  would be responsible for passing the completed cards to the voter registration officers] No further action was required except in the cases of officers of the regular army and the Special Reserve, who would communicate personally with their respective voter registration officer by 30 June and 31 December annually and also inform them of any change of postal address.

A complete example of Army Form W.3940. I found this image online, with the original being sold on ebay by user postbeelden but have failed to be able to make contact with them. If postbeelden or subsequent owner of the card wishes to make contact please do so via this website: I will be happy to remove this email or replace it with another example on request.

Officers and soldiers serving in France and Italy:
the procedure was similar to that applying at home, except that officers commanding units would be automatically supplied wit a stock of forms. A stock would also be made available at all field post offices for men not serving with any recognised unit or being sick in any British military hospital.

Soldiers serving in distant fronts and garrisons (that is, anywhere other than home, France and Italy):
an Army Form W.3941, similar to 3940, would be used but filled in by the officer in charge of records for the man’s unit and not by the man himself. The home address to be given would be that of the wife (if the man was married) or next of kin (if unmarried or widower). “The address may not be the actual address that will qualify for the vote, but will enable the registration officer to get in touch with the soldier’s relatives and obtain information of the correct address. [A supply of Army Form W.3940 would also be sent for distribution under local arrangements so men could fill in the forms themselves if they so desired: the ACI recognised that this approach may be too slow to allow the information to be compiled for the first register of voters]

Officers serving in distant fronts and garrisons (that is, anywhere other than home, France and Italy):
officers of the regular army and Special Reserve would communicate personally with their respective voter registration officer or instruct their representatives at home to do so.  [A supply of Army Form W.3940 would also be sent for distribution under local arrangements so officers could fill in the forms themselves][For officers of the Territorial Force the procedure would be the same as for non-commissioned men, above]

Women serving with the forces who, being 30 years of age, acquire a vote under Section 5 of the Act:
(a) Queen Mary’s Auxiliary Army Corps, Mobile Branch: Army Form W.3942 will be distributed or obtainable at home, France and elsewhere, as applicable, similarly to AF W.3940, above. Members of the Mobile Branch who are serving abroad or who are liable to be sent so at short notice will, if they are of the required age and required qualifications, complete this form, which will be counter-signed by an officer or administrator and addressed (to the respective voter registration officer). (b) Matrons, sisters and nurses of the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service and Territorial Force Nursing Service serving abroad, also members of  Voluntary Aid Detachments employed in British military hospitals abroad, together with any other women serving with the forces overseas who draw pay from Parliamentary or Dominion funds may, if over 30 years and qualified, complete Army Form W.3942 and send it to the voters registration officer of the area in which they claim to be entitled to vote. They may, however, have to communicate personally with the officer from time to time and notify all changes of address.

On receipt of the information from Army Forms W.3940, 3941 and 3942 the voter registration officers will prepare the registers and list of absent voters.

When the registers are near completion the voter registration officers will send to each [Army] Record Office a list of military voters entered under that Record Office on the register of absent voters. The Record Office will verify the names and report all errors … and … inaugurate a card index by constituencies by each Corps which is affiliated to the Record Office. This index will show the present unit of every soldier who is a military voter and will, as a matter of day to day routine, be kept up to date.

The [Army] Record Office would then send to each voter registration officer on a half yearly basis an update on the unit with which each officer of the Territorial Force; each soldier; and each member of the Queen Mary’s Auxiliary Army Corps Mobile Branch was serving. This would include any additions of men and women since last submission. The Record Office would also inform the registration officer whenever the man was affected by a change of Corps which would require the transfer of his documents to a different office.

Extract from the Birmingham Absent Voters List 1918. Birmingham Central Library.

Election

When an election was called, the [Army] Record Office would then send to each voter registration officer an update on the unit with which each officer of the Territorial Force; each soldier; and each member of the Queen Mary’s Auxiliary Army Corps Mobile Branch was serving. This would also show whether the unit was serving with the British Expeditionary Force, or was in the Home Forces, or was in a Proxy Area.

The voter registration officers would notify each military voter that was on his list, by post, that he was registered and that he or she would be entitled to vote using a form that would be sent to him  or her, or, in the event that he or she was serving in a distant garrison, he or she would be entitled to vote by proxy.

When the election was imminent, the voter registration officer, now acting as returning officer, would sent the ballot papers to everyone on his list, unless they were serving in an area where voting by proxy was permitted. The voters were urged to return their ballot papers as soon as possible.

Exceptions

The ACI said that men serving with the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division (whose records were kept at the Admiralty) were not subject to the above and would receive instructions from the Admiralty.

The 1918 General Election

An election was called immediately after the Armistice and held on Saturday 14 December 1918 but not finalised until the soldiers votes had been received.

Ballot papers being sent by soldiers were considered to be in time to be counted if they arrived at their destination by 10am on 28 December 1918 (noon for those going to Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Devon and Cornwall).

This photograph from the “Daily Mirror” of 22 October 1918 is apparently of a Canadian soldier voting in Canadian elections, but the scene was no doubt similar to that seen in December in the British election.

Links

A soldier’s life

The Absent Voters Lists as a research tool