Electoral confusion in Grenville County

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Elections are in the news these days, along with matters of voter suppression, a lack of voting places, and fears of tampering. This is not at all a new topic, nor is it one confined to our southern neighbours. Grenville County has quite a checkered history of its own when it comes to elections.

On January 15, 1845, the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada heard a petition from William Harris and others complaining about the recent election of Dr Hamilton Dribble Jessup, a veteran Conservative, as Member of the County of Grenville. They had two main grievances. The first was that the Returning Officer had set up a polling station in North Gower and Marlborough, where residents had voted, in spite of the fact that neither township was within the boundaries of Grenville County. Although both had been part of the County before an Act of 1842 had reassigned them to Carleton, there was still, obviously, some uncertainty about the new boundaries. To add to the complexity of the election, the voters in these same two townships has been allowed to vote for a Member for Carleton County in the election.

The second grievance of Harris and friends was that the Returning Officer had placed the polling station for Grenville County in Kemptville, with none located in Prescott. The petition objected that Kemptville was “in the extreme rear of the said County of Grenville, a place inconvenient and improper for obtaining the true expression of opinion of the Electors of said County of Grenville”, leading to “great injury, wrong and inconvenience” to the Electors. The petitioners asked that the election of Jessup be declared void and a new vote arranged.

The Assembly received a second, and similar, petition on December 9, 1845 from R. Burritt and others, protesting about the same election and for the same reasons. Burrit referred to the “last Election, or pretended Election”, and was particularly upset that no polling station had been located in Prescott, which there should have been, by law. “For these an many other good and valid reasons”, Burritt and friends also demanded that the election be voided and a new one held.

The background to all of this seems to have been that the Conservatives had a majority support in the north of Grenville County, while the Reformers, later to be known as Liberals, held the south and the town of Prescott. The Returning Officer, it may be assumed, was a Conservative. Under the regulations governing this kind of appeal, it was required that petitioners commit to appear before the Assembly within a set period of time.

For both Harris and Burritt, this period would expire on December 23, and this would be a serious difficulty, given the obstacles to travel in Winter in the conditions of 1845. The Reformers therefore asked that the period be extended to January 10. The vote on this was taken on strictly party lines, and the Conservatives prevailed. That party included John A. Macdonald, then a young man on the fringes of the party. Taking advantage, perhaps, of a temporary majority in the Assembly, the Reformers had that decision reversed on December 18, and Harris was given until January 10, 1846 to appear instead.

However, Burritt was not included in this decision, and so, on December 20, his petition was rejected, as he had not committed to attending the Assembly in the time allowed. There is no record of why he was treated differently than Harris, nor why Harris was granted this reprieve. But he turned up on January 10, as required, and he was examined by a committee of members, as was Hamilton Jessup. It was quite a formal procedure, with W. B. Richards appearing on behalf of Harris, and Jessup representing himself before the Committee. The poll books, recording the votes cast at the election, were presented in evidence. Jessup had an interesting collection of witnesses on his side, including familiar names from the area, such as Truman Hurd, William “Squire” Bottom, Francis Jones, all of whom lived on Clothier Street, as well as Asa Clothier and Henry Burritt.

It was the decision of the Committee on January 15, 1846, that Hamilton Jessup had received enough valid votes in the election to warrant his remaining the sitting Member for Grenville County. It was also decided that the petition of Harris and friends had not been frivolous. Jessup was defeated in the 1854 election by William Patrick, one-time store owner in Kemptville.

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