This section allows the user to discover the extent to which groups of voters participated in the elections in Alexandria on May 26, 1859 and those in Newport on March 2, 1874. The results are arrayed by age but include all voters: 1,406 in Alexandria and 2,262 in Newport.
Election participation is notoriously difficult to measure today but especially in the past. There is no reason to doubt the veracity of the number of votes in either Alexandria or Newport, or the US more generally. The problem is the denominator: the number of eligible voters. This problem is exacerbated for past measures of participation by the high miss rate of the census; in the mid 19th century this could easily amount to 15 percent of the population, concentrated in the transient and least locally engaged population which was also the least likely to vote. So over-estimating 19th century turnout is very common.
Individual level information on political participation, uniquely provided in the poll books of viva voce elections, offers a chance to obtain more accurate results. This section of the website breaks new ground in historical studies by estimating the likely eligibility of each potential voter using three pieces of information: age, place of birth, and presence in official records bracketing the year of the election. The 1870 census includes information on citizenship (not always completed) and the 1874 Newport tax list includes a column to tick for “males over 21 years of age” and another for “legal voter.”
This information can provide estimates of the likelihood that an individual was an eligible voter and a likelihood eligibility score for every potential voter. Each person in the two cities is assigned to a category of political participation, which appears in the search and results pages of the website. as either:
· Non-voter, probably eligible to vote
· Non-voter, possibility eligible to vote
Voters are those 1,406 men whose names appear in the official poll books for the May 26, 1859 elections in Alexandria and the 2,266 who voted in the March 2, 1874 elections in Newport. Those ineligible are women, males under 21, and, for Alexandria, slaves and free blacks. In 1859 there was no citizenship requirement in Alexandria to vote. It is not clear in Newport in 1874 whether information in the 1870 census on citizenship or in the 1874 tax list on eligibility was used to disallow some individuals from voting as some men in these categories did in fact vote. The likelihood estimates reflect the summary judgement of the evidence available in each case.
There were 1,388 adult white men in Alexandria who did not vote in the May 26, 1859 election. Rather than simply assuming that all these individuals were eligible, we have grouped them into five categories based on the level of information bearing on eligibility, separating them into those who probably were or those possibly were eligible to vote.
The four categories of men who were probably eligible to vote were:
1) White males over 20, who appear in both the 1859 city tax list and the 1860 census for the city, were born in the US, and appear in the 1859 tax list have taxable assets in the city: 232 individuals with a 100 percent probability of being eligible
2) White men over 20, appear in both the 1859 city tax list and the 1860 census, born in the US, appear on either the 1859 City or the County tax list with property held in the city of Alexandria and we have located the city residence of that person: 69 individuals with a 95 percent probability of being eligible
3) White men over 20, present in city in 1860 census, born in the US: 437 individuals with a 90 percent probability of being eligible
4) White men over 20, present in city in 1859 tax and 1860 census, not US born: 381 individuals with a 85 percent probability of being eligible
The final group of men but for whom there is limited individual information and who were possibly eligible to vote were:
5) White men over 20, most on 1860 census, do not appear in 1859 tax list: 269 individuals with a 30 percent probability of being eligible
These individual calculations give us the capacity to generate three estimates turnout for Alexandria’s election on May 26, 1859:
Most likely: 56.2 % turnout of eligible voters (deploying all the above probabilities to the individuals in the five groups)
High estimate: 58.1 % turnout of eligible voters (deploying only probabilities above 85% percent)
Low estimate: 50.3 % turnout of eligible voters (deploying no probabilities and assuming all the 1,388 individuals in the five groups above were eligible to vote)
In Newport, 2,266 men voted in the municipal election of March 2, 1874 and 4,701 who may have been eligible did not. Rather than assuming that all of the non-voters were eligible to vote, we again created two categories of non-voters based on the level of information we had about each of them separating the probably eligible from the possibility eligible. This was complicated in Newport because the gap between the election and nearest census was four years rather than one year in Alexandria. The result is a thinner information profile on a larger number of men. In all we had three sets of voters and, as in Alexandria, assigned an eligibility probability to each. Those who were probably eligible to vote in the Newport election of March 2, 1874 were:
1) Men listed in the 1874 tax list as an eligible voter but who did not vote: 1757 individuals with a 100 percent probability of being eligible
There were two groups of men for whom we have limited eligibility information but who were possibly eligible to vote; they were:
2) Men over 20, born in the US, but not listed as legal voter on the 1874 tax list: 993 individuals with a 30 percent probability of being eligible
3) Men probably over 20 (listed in 1873 city directory with an occupation), born overseas or their place of birth not known: 1951 individuals with a 10 percent probability of being eligible
These individual calculations give us the capacity to generate three estimates of turnout for Newport’s election on March 2, 1874:
Most likely: 50.2 % turnout of eligible voters (deploying all the above probabilities to the individuals in the three groups)
High estimate: 56.3 % turnout of eligible voters (deploying only probabilities above 85% percent)
Low estimate: 43.9 % turnout of eligible voters (raising the probability of being eligible for group 2 from .30 to .50 and group 3 from .10 to .33)
Comparing the two cities: likely turnout in Alexandria was 56 percent of the eligible electors vs 50 percent in Newport. One of the important features of public voting was the excitement and uncertainty that accompanied elections. The overall turnout rates were similar in the two cities, figures which are modest by some of the claims for participation rates in the past but also higher than the rates in modern America.