only after 1851 could local voters elect the members of the county court, which made local decisions in places such as the James City County courthouse
(as restored in Colonial Williamsburg)
The first formal vote by Virginia colonists was after the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery arrived at the Chesapeake Bay. The London Company had appointed Christopher Newport as the commander of the three-ship expedition that left London in December 1606 and carried over 100 people planning to live permanently in Virginia, but Newport would return home and others would govern the colony after arrival. Once the ships reached Virginia, the sealed box with the names of the new leaders was opened.
The company's instructions appointed John Smith as one of the seven people on the council that would govern the colony, but the other appointees immediately decided to block him from participating. Smith had been locked up for most of the journey across the Atlantic Ocean. Evidently he was not very gentle when expressing his point of view, and others on the ships were not experienced at working together as members of a tram. Captain Newport even proposed to hang Smith while the expedition sailed through the Caribbean before turning north to reach Virginia in April, 1607.
Because Smith was blocked from participating in the first vote to choose a President of the Council, voter suppression began at the very start of colonization in Virginia. Smith was added to the council with the right to vote before Captain Newport sailed home in June, 1607, but the Council remained a dysfunctional group of leaders. Only the existing members of the Council (or company officials in London) could select new members of the Council; the other colonists had no ability to choose their leaders.
Two months after Newport returned to England, half the colonists were dead or dying and the members of the Council accused their President, Edward Maria Wingfield, or hoarding food. Wingfield was deposed, Bartholomew Gosnold died, George Kendall was executed after being condemned by the Council as a Spanish spy, and the number of voting members on the council dropped to three until they added new leaders. Only members of the governing council, or the political/military leaders later appointed by the company, were authorized to vote until the company created a representative assembly in 1619.1
The creation of that 1619 assembly reflected a shift in strategy by the company, which had relied upon a military government and martial law for the previous five years. Giving colonists a role in shaping local laws was expected to spur immigration, making Virginia a more-profitable investment. The very first assembly rejected the two representatives elected from Martin's Brandon, because James II had made that plantation exempt from some company control. The other 20 members elected to serve in the first assembly concluded that if Captain John Martin's plantation was not obliged to comply with the decisions of the assembly, then Martin's Brandon would be excluded from the assembly.2
Starting in 1634, voters in each county chose two men who served in the representative assembly. (The three towns, Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Norfolk, each elected one member, as did the College of William and Mary.) Local voters chose their members of the House of Burgesses between 1643-1776, and elected members to the House of Delegates and also the State Senate between 1776-1851. Just the white male property owners ("freeholders") were allowed to vote.
Local residents in Virginia did not elect the members of the local county court (equivalent to today's Board of County Supervisors, combined with today's District court judges), the sheriff, the clerk of the court, or any other county officials until the state constitution was revised in 1851.
Instead, colonial/state officials meeting in Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Richmond selected the officials who served in county government. Officials who had been appointed by the colonial/state government - not elected by local voters - made public policy decisions on local issues such as county tax rates, and made decisions after trials to resolve local court cases.
Local authority to elect the members of Anglican parish vestries was slightly different.
The Anglican Church was "established" in Virginia and local church costs were funded by local taxes throughout the colonial era. A vestry, typically a dozen men, governed the local parish, which could consist of and entire county or just a geographic portion. The vestry set a local tax rate to generate the funds required to pay the minister, maintain churches, and provide welfare services to the poor, the orphans, and the insane. That tax rate could exceed the rate established by the county court, especially if the vestry decided to build a new church building.
Those who qualified as voters within the boundaries of a new parish elected the vestry, typically a dozen men who would govern that particular parish (including selecting the minister). Members of the vestry served until they resigned or died. Existing vestry members chose new members when there was a vacancy. Local residents in the parish voted only for the initial vestry, except when one was dissolved by the General Assembly and replaced under unusual circumstances (usually based on accusations of inappropriate behavior).3
The local sheriff collected the taxes for both the vestry and the county court, the local decisionmakers who had been appointed by the General Assembly and the governor (similar to the Board of County Supervisors in modern Virginia counties). Though local voters never voted for the members of the county court or the sheriff until 1851, local voters did get to elect a vestry occasionally.
When a new parish was created by the General Assembly, local voters chose the initial vestry. After that initial election, however, there were no more opportunities for most residents to vote for members of the vestry. When a vacancy occurred through death or resignation, only the remaining members of the vestry selected the replacement.
There was an occasional exception to this pattern. If a vestry was dissolved by the General Assembly (usually after accusations of misconduct), then local voters were given the one-time opportunity to elect a new vestry.
Separation of church and state was triggered by the American Revolution. The authority of the vestry to impose taxes was ended, and the Anglican church was finally "disestablished" in 1786. Today, individual Episcopalian congregations elect members of their own vestry at annual congregational meetings.4
in colonial times, local voters elected the vestry for Anglican parishes only once typically and members of the vestry then chose their replacements, so the rich gentry grew to dominate both the vestry and the county offices in places such as Falls Church
Source: Library of Congress, Falls Church, Va. The Church (shown during Civil War)
Only white male property owners were allowed to vote in the colonial era. The logic for limiting voting rights in the colonial era was that children, wives/daughters, indentured servants, slaves, and poor tenant farmers without their own land were financially dependent upon white male property owners. If everyone was allowed to vote, then a few rich people would be able to tell everyone dependent upon them how to vote. Limiting the right to vote thus created a more equitable democracy, reducing the political power of the very rich.
Not everyone agreed with that logic, or with the limited ability to elect local officials in colonial Virginia.
Bacon's Rebellion in 1676 was triggered in part by the desire of land-hungry settlers to seize territory controlled by Native Americans. However, Nathaniel Bacon was able to recruit an army in part because so many people were unhappy over their inability to influence who would serve in local office, and alter the taxes imposed by those local officials. As Brent Tartar, a historian at the Library of Virginia described it:5
colonists unhappy over decisions made by appointed officials in the counties (as well as by the members elected to the House of Burgesses) joined Nathaniel Bacon and rebelled in 1676, confronting Governor Berkeley at the statehouse in Jamestown and burning the colonial capital later that year
Source: National Park Service, Bacon's Rebellion (painting by Sidney E. King)
Virginia implemented the written ballot only after the Civil War. Throughout the colonial era (and until the adoption of the ballot after implementation of the Underwood Constitution in 1869), election day at the courthouse was a public spectacle. An audience would gather and observe how people voted. Voters had to announce their vote by voice ("viva voce") loud enough for the decision to be recorded by the sheriff:6
Source: National Gallery of Art, George Washington (painted by Gilbert Stuart, 1821)
Source: National Gallery of Art, George Washington (Vaughan portrait) (painted by Gilbert Stuart, 1795)
George Washington was elected by the voters to serve in the House of Burgesses, but was never governor of Virginia
Virginia representatives sent to the Continental Congress meetings between 1774-1788 were not elected directly by Virginia voters, but were chosen by the members of the five Virginia Conventions and then the General Assembly after the Fifth Virginia Convention declared in 1776 that the colony was an independent state
Source: Architect of the Capitol, The First Continental Congress, 1774