In my experience people are either not aware of the uses of the Electoral Registers or confuse them with Trade Directories, even though the two are very different resources.
Trade Directories are similar to our modern day Yellow pages, listing the businesses of the day, whereas as Electoral Registers, pre-date Trade Directories and list the men (and later women) who were entitled to vote. These registers are still created today.
The first version of the Electoral Register was the Poll Books which were introduced before voting was by secret ballot. These were written after the voting and noted the name of the voter, his address and who he voted for. At this time only wealthy men were entitled to vote.
Some articles state that Poll books were introduced after an Act of Parliament in 1696 to prevent election fraud and deal with disputes, however Ancestry.co.uk have Poll Books dating from 1675 for County Durham, so it is always worth checking the local area archives.
County sheriffs were responsible for compiling a list of those who were entitled to vote and how they voted, which would then be available for anyone to look at.
Each book would list the voters in alphabetical order and in some counties may also be divided into areas with columns at the end of each page representing each candidate. A tick or letter was placed next to each person in the relevant column.
The 1675 Poll Book for the County of Durham shows that the three candidates were: Sir James Clavering, Thomas Vaine Esq and John Tempest Esq, and next to each voter there would be a c, v or t depending on who they voted for. In some areas the Poll Books would list the names of the voters beneath the names of the candidates for whom they voted.
At the beginning of the 1675 Poll Book the County Sheriff for Durham stated that only men who held freehold land or tenements with a “40s [shillings] per annum cleared and above” may be able to vote. In addition each voter had to give a truthful account of what freehold property they held in the county. It was possible that one person could vote in the same election for different counties depending on the time of each election, especially if he lived close to the county border.
These books are useful, and often under used, by genealogists as not only do they give an insight into the political beliefs and loyalties of our ancestors, it also confirms their social status and residence at the time. Some voters may have an * alongside their name, which may indicate that he did not live in the County he was entitled to vote in, i.e. where the freehold property was. If you see an * always check its meaning.
Some books were used in the run up to the next election and some of these have details of changes of address and even the deaths of the original voter.
Between 1832 and 1884 three Reform Acts eventually made the voting rules consistent across the country, as previously those in Boroughs had different entitlements to those in the Counties. From 1884 all male householders, as well as lodgers, who paid rent of £10 a year or more, and agricultural landowners and tenants with very small amounts of land were also entitled to vote. Women could not vote in Parliamentary Elections but from 1869 some women were allowed to vote in local elections to elect local councillors. These women had to be unmarried and pay property rates. The reason they had to be unmarried is that at that time, the possessions and money of women who married became the property of their husbands.
The first Reform Act of 1832 also introduced the Electoral Registers we are more familiar with today which listed those who were entitled to vote, and not just those who did vote. From this date there were three different registers of Voters: Burgess Rolls listed men entitled to vote in local government elections, Parliamentary Registers listed those entitled to vote in Parliamentary elections, and Parochial Registers listed those who are entitled to vote in parish council elections. In most cases these were combined into one Register in 1918.
As with the Poll Books these Registers were open for anyone to read until 2001 when two registers were created, one open to the public and the other is kept private for the use of elections only. Since then voters have had the option to opt out of the pubic register
With the introduction of the new Electoral Registers, it was the role of the Overseers of the Poor for each parish to compile the lists of those who met the voting qualifications. They would publish a notice notifying prospective voters to register and prove their eligibility to vote. Once an elector had registered, he would be re-listed every time unless he, or someone else, notified them that his circumstances or eligibility changed.
The Poll Books continued to be issued, however, until 1872 when voting was changed to a secret ballot.
In 1918 all men over the age of 21, and women over the age of 30 who met a property qualification, were entitled to vote. It was not until 1928 when all British citizens aged 21 years and over could vote.