As in other county constituencies the franchise between 1430 and 1832 was defined by the Forty Shilling Freeholder Act, which gave the right to vote to every man who possessed freehold property within the county valued at £2 or more per year for the purposes of land tax; it was not necessary for the freeholder to occupy his land, nor even in later years to be resident in the county at all.
Except during the period of the Commonwealth, Norfolk had two MPs elected by the bloc vote method, under which each voter had two votes. In the nominated Barebones Parliament of 1653, five members represented Norfolk. In the First and Second Parliaments of Oliver Cromwell's Protectorate, however, there was a general redistribution of seats and Norfolk elected ten members, while the two smallest of the county's boroughs (Castle Rising and Thetford) lost their seats. The traditional arrangements were restored from 1659.
At the time of the Great Reform Act in 1832, Norfolk had a population of approximately 390,000, though only a fraction of these could vote: the highest recorded turnouts in Norfolk were at the 1802 and 1806 elections, at each of which under 12,000 votes were cast, even though each voter could cast two votes.
Norfolk's electorate was predominantly rural, partly as an effect of the Norwich freeholders voting in the city rather than the county. It has been estimated from the pollbooks that in the early 19th century only around one in six of the voters lived in towns, with Great Yarmouth and King's Lynn contributing the largest numbers of these. Fittingly for such a constituency, the families of two of the best-known pioneers of the agrarian revolution, Coke of Holkham and "Turnip" Townshend, frequently provided the county's Members of Parliament.
Nevertheless, no one or two families controlled the constituency, and competition was fostered by the leading families lining up on different sides of the partisan divide. The leading Whig families around the turn of the 18th century were those of Walpole and Townshend, while the most important Tory interests were those of the Wodehouse and Astley families, until Sir Jacob Astley defected to the Whigs before the 1715 election. By the middle of the 18th century, the list of local peerage families who could expect to exert influence at Norfolk elections had grown to include the Hobart Earls of Buckinghamshire, the Earls Cholmondeley and the Lord Suffield, but these magnates remained divided, with contention between support for the "court" and "country" factions within the Whigs as well as between Whigs and Tories.
Consequently, the independent voters generally held the balance of power. But this did not prevent the various leading families from monopolising the representation between them, a process that accelerated in the 18th century: 16 different families represented Norfolk in the 22 Parliaments from 1660 to 1746, but only 7 in the 18 Parliaments from 1747 to 1832. The minor gentry could not expect to secure election for themselves, only to choose between the candidates of the major families. The Cokes of Holkham were generally regarded as the champions of the independent freeholders, and were frequently elected. Elections in Norfolk were therefore rarely a foregone conclusion, and often hard-fought at the canvassing stage even when the contest was not carried to a poll.
Elections were held at a single polling place, Norwich, and voters from the rest of the county had to travel to the county town to exercise their franchise. It was normal for voters to expect the candidates for whom they voted to meet their expenses in travelling to the poll, making the cost of a contested election substantial. Contested elections were therefore the exception rather than the rule, potential candidates preferring to canvass support beforehand and usually not insisting on a vote being taken unless they were confident of winning; at all but 8 of the 29 general elections between 1701 and 1832, Norfolk's two MPs were elected unopposed, with only two contests after 1768. But this was more frequent than in many other counties of Norfolk's size.
Note on percentage change calculations: Where there was only one candidate of a party in successive elections, for the same number of seats, change is calculated on the party percentage vote. Where there was more than one candidate, in one or both successive elections for the same number of seats, then change is calculated on the individual percentage vote.
Note on sources: The information for the election results given below is taken from Sedgwick 1715–1754, Stooks Smith 1715–1754, Namier and Brooke 1754–1790 and Stooks Smith 1790–1832.
Note (1710): Stooks Smith, whose compilation of results normally starts with the 1715 general election, is the source for this result. He gives no party classification for the candidates, but for three of them the position is obvious from the survey of Norfolk politics in The History of Parliament 1715–1754. Windham was probably a Whig, but this has not yet been confirmed.
Note (1713): No source for the full result of this election has yet been located. Sir Jacob Astley was re-elected as a Tory but defected to the Whigs during the Parliament.
^Christopher Heydon was defeated, but the Privy Council ordered a fresh poll, which Heydon won; the House of Commons then challenged the Council's right to interfere in elections, and the second poll was quashed. See Capp, Bernard, Heydon, Sir Christopher (1561–1623), soldier and writer on astrology in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004)
^On petition, Calthorpe and Sir Nevill Catlin were adjudged not to have been duly elected, and the House of Commons ordered the arrest of two of the under-sheriffs responsible for conducting the election.
^On petition, Coke and Windham were adjudged not to have been duly elected, and a by-election was held. Windham had also been elected for New Romney, and sat for that borough for the remainder of the Parliament.