Would you vote differently if you knew that a “poll book” would publish the names of the candidates you had voted for?
Voting was not a secret process in early modern England. The poll book, below, published the names of all the voters in London and which candidates and party they voted for in 1710. Each voter was able to cast one vote (indicated at right by a dash) for each of the four seats up for grabs in their constituency. Some crossed party lines, but the vast majority followed a party ticket.
Public fascination with elections is as old as politics itself. In the seventeenth century, the press was increasingly filled with election pamphlets offering advice on whom to vote for and even more importantly, whom to oppose. Printed election material originated in the 1640s, reflecting public interest in the political process, especially in a time of Civil war and domestic upheaval. Secrecy surrounding politics had broken down; votes needed to be earned and voters persuaded. Elections became increasingly contested and divided along party lines.
The emergence of political parties made elections tense and fractious, and London’s 1710 contest was particularly controversial. Some commentators alleged that the press exerted undue influence in order to ensure that the Tories took all four seats. This poll book revealed the votes—one for each of the available places—cast by individual voters, as well as the final outcome. It reflected a high turnout (around eighty percent), and a highly polarized electorate.
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This blog post is based on a feature from the Fall 2008 issue of Folger Magazine written by Chris R. Kyle and Jason Peacey, curators of the 2008 Folger exhibition Breaking News: Renaissance Journalism and the Birth of the Newspaper.