Electoral violence plagues the modern world, but it is not a new phenomenon. Violence and intimidation were a common part of early elections in many now established democracies. This project will use new detailed data to examine electoral violence in England and Wales from its peak after the Great Reform Act (1832) until it disappeared before the Great War (1914). Based on the exceptionally detailed historical records available for Britain (1832-1914), Gidon Cohen (Co-I, Durham), Gary Hutchison (PDRA, Durham), Patrick M Kuhn (PI, Durham), and Nick Vivyan (Co-I, Durham) aim to provide new answers to some of the most challenging questions about what leads to electoral violence, and about its effects. Our findings will be useful not just to historians but contemporary scholars of election violence and practitioners seeking to tackle this problem.

Most existing research focuses on modern-day emerging democracies. So why study an historical case to learn about what drives electoral violence? First, electoral violence was successfully eliminated in Britain. This allows us to examine the factors that led to its demise, which is not possible in contemporary cases where electoral violence tends to persist. Second, we are able to look at a period of nearly one century and 20 general elections. In contrast to contemporary studies – which have time-spans of about twenty to thirty years – this enables us to disentangle short-, medium- and long-term trends in electoral violence. Finally, the available data on election violence and other variables of interest in England and Wales during this time period are exceptionally good, especially when compared to contemporary cases. This will allow us to implement cutting-edge research designs by tracing a large number of individuals’ voting histories over multiple elections and correlate this with incidents of violence, along with various background characteristics (e.g., age, education, income, employment etc.) to study the micro-dynamics of electoral violence and see how violence effects voting behaviour over time and across multiple elections.

Our project will also revise existing historical understandings of nineteenth-century Britain. We will provide a new contextual account of election violence, providing a much more careful and geographically specific periodization of election violence. We will address major historical debates about the adequacy of cultural explanations of election violence by examining whether such violence was primarily used strategically by politicians, or whether, as most contemporary historians have argued, that it was an unfortunate part of the carnival atmosphere of elections in the Victorian period.

Our collection and coding of newspaper reports of electoral violence was completed in July 2020. After cleaning and checking the data for months we are now working on outputs.