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Poll Books (VA-NOTES)

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, elections for members of the House of Burgesses were conducted publicly. To be eligible to vote, a person had to be an adult white man and had to own a specific amount of real property, an amount that differed for town and country residents. The elections were held on the court day of the county or city or borough. The candidates appeared at the polling place, and the voters voted viva voce,that is, announced out loud in their own voices who they voted for. There were no ballots, and there was no secrecy.

The county's sheriff, who was responsible for conducting the election, wrote down, or deputized some one to write down, the names of the voters who voted for each of the candidates. To guarantee that the lists, usually called Poll Books, Poll Lists, or simply Polls, were accurate, each candidate usually had a friend watch the preparation of the Poll. If the results of an election were challenged for some reason, the Poll Books could be reviewed by the House Committee on Elections to ascertain whether the vote totals were correct or whether names had been incorrectly written down or whether ineligible people had been permitted to vote or whether eligible people had been denied an opportunity to vote.

The presence of a name on a Poll Book should in most instances be adequate proof that the person owned the requisite number of acres of land in the county. The presence of a name on a poll does not prove that a person lived in the county because men were legally able to vote in any jurisdiction in which they owned land.

Poll Books do not survive in abundance, but there are several in the Library of Virginia, most filed among the records of the jurisdiction in which the election occurred. At this time, there is no comprehensive listing of Poll Books, but as more local records are processed, more records of this nature are certain to be uncovered.