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A hustings originally referred to a native Germanic governing assembly, the thing. By metonymy, the term may now refer to any event, such as debates or speeches, during an election campaign where one or more of the representative candidates are present. The singular husting was once used, but only in Old and Middle English.
Development of the term
The origin of the term comes from the Old English hūsting and Old Norse hūsþing, literally "house thing", an assembly of the household retainers of a king, earl, or chief, contrasted with the folkmoot (Old English folcgemōt), an assembly of the whole people.
Husting, more usually in the plural form but grammatically singular hustings, developed to mean a court of the City of London. This court was formerly the county court for the city and was held before the Lord Mayor, the sheriffs and aldermen, for the purpose of hearing pleas of land, common pleas and appeals from the sheriffs. It had probate jurisdiction and the ability to register wills. The Charter of Harthacnut (1032) contains a reference to "hustings" weights, which points to the early establishment of this court. It is doubtful whether courts of this name were held in other towns, but John Cowell (1554–1611) in his Interpreter of 1601 (sub verbo "Hustings"), says that according to Fleta there were such courts at Winchester, York, Lincoln, the Isle of Sheppey, and elsewhere. However, the passage from Fleta, as the New English Dictionary points out, does not necessarily imply this (II. lv. Habet etiam Rex curiam in civitatibus ... et in locis ... sicut in Hustingis London, Winton, est.).
This hustings court jurisdiction eventually became obsolete, but the court still sits occasionally for registering gifts made to the city. Today, the Hustings Court tradition can be found in some areas of the United States, such as in Virginia, where Hustings Courts formerly decided local criminal and other matters. In Richmond, Virginia, there is also a park called Hustings Court Square, where polling votes used to take place.
18th and early 19th century practice
The husting was a platform or pavilion, a temporary structure erected at the place of an election. The returning officer (in most borough constituencies the Mayor or equivalent civic dignitary, and in county elections the High Sheriff of the county) was responsible for the detailed timing of the election and the provision of a suitable husting. County elections took place at a single place of election, which was usually the county town or a large town.
On the appointed day the returning officer attended at the husting with the prospective candidates (or the agent of a candidate who was not present in person). The candidates, with a proposer and a seconder for each, addressed the assembled voters. This could sometimes be a difficult task in a large urban constituency, where unpopular speakers might be shouted down.
At the conclusion of the speeches, a show of hands was taken. This was an informal indication of the opinion of the voters and no official record was kept of how many voted for a particular candidate. Sometimes a candidate who found he had little support or otherwise did not want to continue declined to call for a poll. One example of this was seen in the 1784 election for the four seats of the City of London. William Pitt the Younger was proposed and "was returned on the show of hands", but removed himself from consideration before the polling was completed.
If after this process there were no more candidates nominated and willing to go to the poll than seats to be filled, the existing candidates were declared elected. This was called an "unopposed return". But if there remained more candidates than vacancies, the polling commenced.
During polling, each vote was declared openly on the husting, with the elector orally declaring for whom he was casting a ballot. The vote was recorded in a poll book, along with the name of each voter (which enabled further enquiries to be made about his eligibility to vote, if a scrutiny was called for at the end of the polling). In certain occasions, additional candidates were nominated as the polling continued, since this gave an opportunity for more speeches. Polling could continue for many days, so long as there were voters wanting to participate and the candidates desired to continue. A maximum of fifteen days for polling was imposed by law in the eighteenth century.
At the end of the polling, the returning officer was required to declare the result from the husting and return the members elected. This could be a problem after a hotly contested election, and rioting was not unheard of. The 1722 election in Westminster was declared void on account of such rioting.
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In British usage during the 1800s, husting meant a platform in the Guildhall on which the London court was held. It evolved to mean a platform upon which the public nomination of candidates for a parliamentary election was made, and from which the candidate addressed the electors.
The Ballot Act 1872 did away with the public declaration of the nomination, however, so the term has not been used in that context since then. The word (usually in the plural form "hustings") now refers to any meeting at which more than one candidate participates. This may involve a combination of a debate, speeches or questions from the electors.
The term is still in use at several universities in the U.K. and Ireland, in connection with student elections.
In U.S. political usage, there is no exactly equivalent term. The closest phrase is that a person is said to be "stumping" or "on the stump" when involved in any political campaigning, especially speech making. (See Stump speech (politics)).
In current Canadian usage the word is found only in the plural, to mean the campaign trail (on the hustings), or to refer to events of the campaign.
- See for example Reid, Mandu (12 June 2018). "I'm standing up to the far right in Lewisham – because Labour isn't". The Guardian. Retrieved 4 September 2018.
Running for parliament is a steep learning curve, full of challenges, and this week brought the most personal one yet: whether to attend a hustings where far-right characters who have brought their vile agenda to my south London constituency would be on the same platform.(emphasis added)
- "Word of the Day". RandomHouse.com.
- In 1973 Virginia's Hustings Courts and Corporation Courts were reorganized as city Circuit Courts. Virginia Acts of Assembly 1973, c. 544. See also Code of Virginia, § 17.1-500.
- "Major Parks in our Richmond's Urban Park System". Virginia Commonwealth University.
- Smith, Henry Stooks (1973). The Parliaments of England. Political Reference Publications.
- See for example, Little talk on the hustings of Canada's role in Libya, Globe and Mail March 30, 2011.
- Electoral Reform in England and Wales, by Charles Seymour (David & Charles Reprints 1970)