david kerr H&S

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Election Day.  For some it’s festive, for others, hoping to see an end to the robocalls, TV ads and snarky mailers, it’s a relief.  To the candidates and their supporters, it’s like a long drawn out ball game. This is the final run, and this is the final play.  

In that regard, little has changed.  But, let’s have a little fun, and go back in time a bit.   Say to the late 18th century.  Not just for the novelty of it but also to see how far we’ve come.  Voting, and election day during the late colonial period and in the time just after the American Revolution was a different affair.

First of all, when it came to elections, by our standards, where we cast a ballot for just about everything, there wasn’t all that much to vote on. At least not while the British were in charge. Local officers of the colonial government, sheriffs, the board of supervisors (then called the Quorum) were all appointed by the royal governor.  When it came to raw power, few individuals in Virginia ever exercised as much power as did our colonial governors.

However, there was one critical choice the colonists were allowed to make and that was in selecting their members of the House of Burgesses.  This is the forerunner of our General Assembly. It was also this body that helped ferment revolution in Virginia as relations between the colonial governor and the House of Burgesses deteriorated. 

As the counties of Virginia were formed, they were each allocated two members of the House.  In those days, as would be the case for years to come, the heavier populated counties got as much representation as those that had smaller populations.  The notion of “one man one vote,” and proportional representation, affirmed by the Supreme Court, was still about 180 years away.

Elections in this era were surprisingly open affairs. Though not in a way that contributed to democratic behavior.  Today, we have secret voting — what’s called the “Australian ballot.” In the late 18th century voting was done out in the open.  Each voter would tell the clerk, usually set up at a table outside the courthouse, out loud, so everyone could hear, which candidate he was voting for that day.  The clerk then kept a running tally, in plain sight, of how the votes stood. This allowed plenty of time for the prospective candidates to round up additional voters or to try and persuade some who hadn’t voted.   

Often, in an effort to win support, candidates provided their voters with liquor and not surprisingly drunkenness was a problem on polling day.  The sheriff was often busy breaking up fights and trying to keep the flow of alcohol to a minimum.

There is an important difference between voting in the Colonial era and today.  It was highly restricted. The rules in Virginia were simple. A white male, owning 50 acres of unimproved land, or 25 acres of improved land, and belonging to the established church, could vote.  That was it. No minorities, Catholics, Baptists, Quakers or women. Those restrictions wouldn’t officially be removed from the books until 1851. That was when all white men, regardless of property ownership, were allowed to vote in Virginia. 

Women wouldn’t be allowed to vote until 1920 and African American men and women, save for a short period during the post-Civil War reconstruction period, would not be registered in significant numbers until after the Civil Rights Voting Act was passed in 1965.  That was a long time to wait.

However, there were some comical quirks to the colonial electoral process.  For one thing, a candidate didn’t have to live in the county they represented.  George Washington, who lost his first election to the House of Burgesses, was eventually elected to the House of Burgesses from Frederick County, where he met the voting requirements, but didn’t reside.  

It was also possible, theoretically at least, to vote in more than one county.  There is one story, about a man who, thanks to some dogged horseback riding and county voting days held on different days of the week, managed to vote in three separate county elections.   

Fortunately, the world has changed since the Colonial era.   Our voter rolls have grown, every adult is allowed to participate, our votes are secret and the number of drunken brawls at the polls is virtually nil.  But as restricted as the process was back in that era, Americans ahead of just about every nation on earth, including their mother country, Great Britain, actively participated in their own government.  

 Also, in many ways, it was the expectations from this early participation in popular government, then so nascent, that led to the reforms, often achieved at great cost, that helped shape the modern participatory republic we know today.


David Kerr, a former member of the Stafford School Board, is an instructor in political science at VCU. He can be reached at staffordnews@insidenova.com.

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