With election season upon us, a recent find in Local Records seems particularly timely. While exploring a box of unprocessed Mecklenburg County records, archivists noticed a few very small folded pieces of paper, most of which had the words “excuse” or “excuse for not voating” written on the back. These documents (available for research as Mecklenburg County Election Records: Election Excuses, 1793) reference two elections that took place over 200 years ago: one in March 1793 for a delegate to the U.S. Congress; the other in April for a delegate to the Virginia General Assembly. Federal and state election laws were very different then, and these “excuse slips” are a good reminder of what a privilege it is to have confidential, free elections.
In 1793 the number of U.S. Representatives from Virginia increased from ten to nineteen, so nine new seats were up for grabs. According to Virginia law, an eligible voter was a (white) male citizen over 21 owning a dwelling and property, ranging from at least 25 acres of plantation land to 50 acres of unimproved land, or a town lot. There were some exceptions to this, related to tenant farmers or joint owners, or land that crossed local boundaries. At any rate, landowners of the day were expected to participate in elections.
In fact, if a qualified person failed to attend to cast his vote, he was penalized to pay one-fourth of his tax levies for the year. Because states had jurisdiction over maintaining their election returns, votes were often recorded in deed books or poll books, which listed the name of the voter as well as the candidate for whom they voted. The local sheriff was expected to deliver the poll book to the county clerk within ten days of the election. The clerk, in turn, would present it at the next gathering of the grand jury along with a list of qualified voters. In the meantime, the local sheriff was also expected to seek out and collect these penalties from negligent voters and present the penalties to the grand jury. The voter excuses from Mecklenburg County are just that: excuses for why certain ostensibly qualified voters failed to travel to the polling place and cast their vote.1
It is unlikely that someone today would make an excuse such as “left home to go…a-fishing.” How about not having adequate transportation? Nowadays one might have to find a ride to the polls, but it’s unlikely that the excuse would be not attending for want of a horse, or especially for “the want of shoes.”
Back then there was no social media, or television, or radio; a voter had to rely on newspapers, broadsides, or word of mouth for election information. Thus it is unsurprising that at least one voter had not known there was an election. A few others either were out of the county or ill, had not realized they were truly qualified to vote, or were unaware that there was a penalty for not voting.
Fast-forward over 200 years to the present day. Voter qualifications have certainly changed; one need not be a white male property owner. With the myriad of ways in which voters can be informed about candidates and issues, many folks are eager to cast their votes, with the convenience of motor transportation to the polls, or absentee/mail-in balloting. And best of all, no one has to go on record with local government officials and document in writing for whom they voted, nor pay a fine for not voting.
Take a moment to reflect on these folks from 1793, and strive to make no excuse for not voting this year!