The Ancestry Clues Hiding in Voting Records

records Mar 06, 2020

As you cast your vote in this year’s election, have you ever wondered about your ancestors in past elections? What issues were important to them? Where did they vote? Could they even vote? It wasn’t that long ago when women and African Americans in the United States were denied the right or intimidated not to vote.

This election day, after your cast your ballot, discover the fascinating details voter records contain about our history and our ancestors. You might discover where they lived, their occupation, and maybe even just where they had that tattoo.

Voting records are often overlooked but a valuable resource for tracking down individuals over time and place.

While census records are the primary resource used for locating your family ancestors at a specific time and place, the U.S. Federal census only occurred every ten years. What about the years in between? Or the years your ancestors might have been missing from the census?

Voter records, like city directories, occurred much more frequently. These records can serve as census substitutes for missing census years or fill in the gaps between census years (for those mostly male ancestors 21 years or older and registered to vote, of course).

What can these records tell you about your ancestors?

Voter records often contain more than just a name and address for your ancestors. You might be pleasantly surprised to discover the following details in your ancestors voting records:

  • name

  • age

  • sex

  • race

  • place of birth

  • address

  • occupation

  • naturalization date, court, location

  • physical description

  • political affiliation

  • signature

The surprising clues voting records reveal

Voting records can reveal immigration clues

In 1866 the state of California passed the Registry Act to prevent voter fraud. Rather than poll lists, counties were required to keep a record of registered voters. Published every other year, it became known as California’s “Great Register.” The information collected over time became more detailed as illustrated in an excerpt from the 1880 San Francisco voter registration record below. It had expanded to include not only name, age, and address, but also immigration information.

In 1880, you had to be a male U.S. Citizen over the age of 21 to vote. As women were not allowed to vote, there was no need to record sex, but age was recorded. Proof of citizenship is recorded in the rolls for foreign-born citizens with their country of birth and the date, place and court where they become a U.S. Citizen. These details can be very helpful clues if you are looking for naturalization records.

1880 Voter Registration Record
San Francisco, California

Voting records can reveal if you ancestor had blue eyes or a scar

I’m always excited when I find a physical description of an ancestor, especially if there are no photos. In 1892, the Great Register of San Diego contained detailed physical descriptions of registered voters including height, complexion, eye color, hair color and even the location of any visible marks or scars. You might discover your great grandfather had a India Ink anchor tattoo on his left hand or your great-great uncle had a florid complexion just like your moms.

1892 Great Register
San Diego, California

Voting records can reveal where your ancestor lived and for how long

In addition to the name, address, and citizenship details, the 1888 Chicago voter registration included length of time they lived in the precinct, county and state. This can be a helpful clue if you are tracking a relative who moved frequently. Additionally, like a census record, this voter registration record can provide you clues about the neighborhood. (Well, about the men in the neighborhood because women didn’t have the right to vote yet.) Most of the registered voters in this precinct where immigrants from Ireland and Germany.

1888 Voter Registration Record
Chicago, Illinois


Voting records can reveal racial discrimination

In 1870, the passing of the 15th Amendment prohibited the government from denying the right to vote to a citizen-based on race, color or previous status of slavery. This granted African-American males the right to vote. However, voting was separate, as these 1911 voting books from Savannah, Georgia illustrate with white registered voters and black registered voters kept in separate books.


1911 Voter Registration Record, Bond Election
Savannah, Georgia

Voting records can reveal women’s suffrage

A special election in 1911 gave women in California the right to vote. It took another nine years for all American women to gain equal voting rights when the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1920. For the first time “sex” had to be an included column in the 1912 San Francisco voter registration record. The details in this voter record provides a snapshot of women in 1912 San Francisco - where they were living, the types of jobs they held, and their political leanings.

1912 Voter Registration
San Francisco, California



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