When I turned twenty-one my grandmother sent me a letter with a reminder that I had achieved a milestone in my life. For the rest of my life I would be exercising my right to vote. In the same letter she gave me some suggestions, such as registering Republican and voting for Barry Goldwater in the Presidential election. She did not quote the 19th Amendment which became a law on 26 August 1920, but I knew my grandmother realized it was a privilege, as a woman, to vote.
Voting records are often overlooked by genealogists. They are valuable for tracking people between census years or as they became more mobile. The information and location of these records varies, but it is worthwhile to locate them.
Normally the voting records will contain the voter's name, age or birth date, sometimes place of birth, address, employment, race, length of residence, nativity, party affiliation and date registered. If the subject was naturalized, you may find that information in the records.
Your search for these records should begin in a jurisdiction where you believe the subject resided. Inquire at the courthouse about voting records. They may also be referred to as Voting Registers. If they are no longer in the courthouse, inquire as to when they were purged or stored and where they are located. Because voting records often take up a good deal of room, they are unfortunately destroyed after a certain period of time. Even so, it's worth asking!
It is important to understand the laws that pertain to voting. In 1787 the constitution gave white male property owners who were age 21 and over, the right to vote. By the 1820s most states had abolished the property requirements. The 15th Amendment (1870) gave males 21 and over the right to vote, regardless of race. The 19th Amendment (1902) gave all 21 and over the right to vote, regardless of sex. In 1971 the 26th Amendment granted voting rights to 18 year old citizens.
In some states and territories, women had already been voting by 1920. My grandmother had a jump-start on the process by living in Tennessee. You should also keep in mind that some people never registered to vote and did not exercise this privilege as a citizen of the United States. Even though my great grandfather swore allegiance to the United States after the Civil War, he never again voted.
The Great Register in California was established in 1866. This was a register of all voters (males over 21 years of age) and consisted of their name, age, state/country of birth, address and occupation. These normally can be found in the county courthouse or an archive or library. Also check the Family History Library (LDS) catalog, http://www.familysearch.org, for film of the California Great Registers. More information about these registers can be found on the web page, http://www.sfgenealogy.com/sf/sfgreat.htm. 61,691 Foreign-Born Voters of California in 1872: The Great Registers of Voters is an interesting web page at
Other western states that had Great Registers include Arizona and Hawaii. Those for Hawaii are on film at the Hawaii State Archives in Honolulu. For Arizona, check the Family History Library (LDS) Catalog, "Arizona Voting Registers."
The Family History Library (LDS) film collection consists of many other voting records or registers. An example is film of Sampson Co., North Carolina, Record of Elections 1920-1964, plus other specific years of voter registration for the county.
Don't forget to do a search on Internet for voting records. This can easily be done through a search engine such as Google, http://www.google.com. By putting in genealogy, a specific state, and "voting records" it is amazing what you will find. The USGenWeb Project, Louisiana Archives Index contains voters records, for example West Carroll Parish at http://www.rootsweb.com/~usgenweb/la/westcarroll/voters.htm.
Exercise your right to obtain more information on your ancestors, but don't forget to exercise your right to vote! Your descendants will thank you in more ways than one for voting.
Source Information: Tracing Lines, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2006.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.
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