this painting of a county election in a small Midwestern town during the mid-nineteenth century shows how local voting traditions were retained beyond the colonial period
Source: Humanities – Picturing America, George Caleb Bingham: The County Election, c.1852
Virginians have voted in elections since the first General Assembly was created in 1619. After the General Assembly divided and the appointed Governor's Council started meeting separately in 1643, colonists could vote for members of the House of Burgesses.
Voters at the local level also elected the initial members of a vestry for the established Church of England, to govern each parish. Verstries were separate from county courts. They served as the powerful colonial equivalent of a modern county's Department of Social Services.
Vestries also ended up with authority to choose the minister for a parish. The governor and the House or Burgesses might try to influence such a selection, but in colonial Virginia the congregants did not have any authority to choose their ministers.
A vestry imposed its own tax on parish residents to maintain church buildings, pay ministers, and provide social services within its boundaries for orphans, bastards, and those unable to care for themselves. Once established, the members of a vestry chose their own replacements. A new vestry election occurred only on the rare occasions when a parish was divided or dissolved by the General Assembly.1
Voting in colonial Virginia was not a common experience, or one that was regularly scheduled. Colonial governors determined when elections would be held for the House of Burgesses. Certain events, such as the arrival of a new appointed governor or even the death of the king/queen in England, could trigger the governor to dissolve the General Assembly and issue a call for a new election.
Governors also dissolved the General Assembly at times when the Burgesses refused to comply with royal instructions or demands by the governor, and the governor hoped new Burgesses would be more compliant. In modern England and other parliamentary systems, the Prime Minister still determines when new elections will be held and can pick a time considered advantageous for their political party.
Prior to 1776, voters had no opportunity to elect representatives to any organization with responsibilities beyond Virginia. The inability to elect members to the British Parliament, or find some other way to ensure representation before taxation, was highlighted as one cause of the American Revolution.
In 1776, Virginia limited the power of the executive branch by scheduling elections on regular dates. Since 1776 Virginia's governor has never had the authority to change those dates, though the governor does have flexibility in choosing dates for special elections.
(There is now a significant election in Virginia every year, unlike the rare and intermittent voting process during the colonial period. In November of every odd-numbered year, Virginians who have registered to vote get the opportunity to select representatives to the General Assembly that meets in Richmond. Every four years, that election also includes statewide races for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General. In every even-numbered year, modern Virginians can vote for candidates seeking to serve in the US House of Representatives that meets in Washington, DC. In some of those even-numbered years, there are also races for one of the state's two seats in the US Senate and for the US president.)
By the end of the 17th Century, voters in each Virginia county were entitled to elect two members to serve in the House of Burgesses whenever the colonial governor called for a election. In addition, one representative was authorized for Jamestown in 1684, the College of William and Mary in 1718, Williamsburg in 1723, and Norfolk in 1738.2
The number of people in the House of Burgesses increased between 1634-1776 as new counties were created. As population increased, the boundaries of existing counties were revised to split large counties into smaller ones. Shaping county boundaries so the courthouse would be within a one-day journey of most residents did more than increase the number of members in the House of Burgesses. Creating new and smaller counties also increased the potential that the desires of local voters would be reflected in decisions made at Jamestown/Williamsburg, when the General Assembly appointed members of the county court.
Adult white males could vote for the Burgesses who met in Jamestown or Williamsburg, but county residents could not vote for their local county court. Men who formed the county court determined local tax rates and tried all but the most major crimes, but those men were appointed by the General Assembly rather than elected by local voters.
The governor and the General Assembly appointed all members of the county court and officers in the militia. The judges on the county court selected local officials such as the sheriff. Residents of a county did not vote for members of the county court until Virginia adopted its third constitution in 1850.
Throughout the colonial period, landowners could run for a seat in the House of Burgesses from any county in which they owned property. George Washington was first elected to the House of Burgesses from Frederick County in 1758. He chose to run for office in Fairfax County in 1761, and represented that jurisdiction until 1775.3
Sheriffs appointed by the county court ran each colonial election. They served as the equivalent of a modern electoral board, and ensured that voters were qalified before their vote was recorded.
The county sheriff scheduled elections after receiving official notice from the House of Burgesses. People owning land in a county could vote in that county, just as they could run for the House of Burgesses from it. It was possible for a person owning property in two counties to vote one day in one county for two Burgesses, and then travel to vote for a diferent pair of Burgesses in another county.
Voters came to the courthouse on election day and publicly announced for whom they were voting. Everyone knew how a person had voted. The viva voce process involved no secret ballot.
The preferences for candidates, spoken publicly, were then entered into the poll book to create a written record of who had voted for whom, and to tally the winners. In the days before radio, television, and social media, crowds assembled to watch the decisions of each voter. Elections triggered community gatherings, and provided some of the major entertainment in the colonial era.
Sheriffs could choose to hold the poll books open for two days to allow those living on the edge of a county to reach the courthouse. Sheriffs also could decide to close the poll when it appeared everyone eligible who was gathered around the courthouse had chosen to vote, or it appeared a decision was clear, or the sheriff's preferred candidate had a lead, or if the voters were getting too rowdy after enjoying alcohol provided by the candidates.
Initially, apparently all adult freemen could vote. The right to vote was limited briefly to just the heads of households (one person per family) in the 1650's. In 1670, Governor Berkeley required that white males had to own enough property to pay taxes before being allowed to vote.
The property restriction on who could vote was eliminated briefly when Governor Berkeley called for an election in 1676 at the start of Bacon's Rebellion. That election ended Virginia's "Long Assembly," which had lasted from March 1661 to May 1676. Governor Berkeley had refused to dissolve the General Assembly and allow a new round of elections for members of the House of Burgesses.
During the 15 years of the Long Assembly, elections had been held in counties only as needed to replace individual members who died or resigned. The colonial legislature, under the control of the wealthy landowners, continued to approve high taxes.
Those taxes were use to fund public offices given to just selected members of the gentry, and were not used for effective military practices that would prevent raids on the backcountry farms by Native Americans. The Virgina elite were viewed as expropriating the wealth of the freemen, the indentured servants who had served their time and were struggling to establish independent farms without adequate security and without a voice in the House of Burgesses.
In 1676, Governor Berkeley sought to re-establish the legitimacy of his colonial government by expanding the franchise and allowing white men without property to vote. His attempt failed, and Nathaniel Bacon led a rebellion that was Virgina's first civil war. In the process, houses of the Governor's wealthy supporters were looted and Jamestown was burned.
After Bacon's Rebellion ended, King Charles II ordered that the property requirements be reimposed. The General Assembly complied in 1684, and maintained that requirement for the next 175 years.4
Until 1850, the Virginia elite ensured that the right to vote was linked to ownership of property. That requirement was designed in large part to protect the upper class Virginia families from excessive taxes; Bacon's Rebellion in 1676 demonstrated the threat of mob rule.