October 2, 2020
We’re just over a month from the 2020 elections, and many of us are focused on what the results will be and how they will impact the country. For those of us who are finding the tension of the current election stressful, digging into our family history may be helpful in putting present-day life into some perspective. Lately, inspired by the upcoming election, I’ve begun to look into the voting records of some of my ancestors. Many of us overlook the political lives that our ancestors lived, but it can be surprising and interesting to find that our ancestors were invested in the elections of their times and how the outcome of those elections impacted their lives.
Although they aren’t always easy to locate and may not even be extant in some times and places, voting registers and other voting records can help us locate an ancestor in a specific time and place and can be a census substitute when censuses are missing for an area. Typically, voting records may contain an ancestor’s name, birth place, residence, years living in a city or county, whether the ancestor was naturalized and the court and date of that action. While the above listed information is helpful, voting records are even more useful in giving insight into an ancestor’s life and his (until 1920 only men could vote) views of society as revealed by who he voted for. For example, several years ago, I ran across a voting record for an ancestor of my husband’s named Griffin Savage. Griffin lived in Accomack County, Virginia, and the record I found contained a copy of his signature as well as who he’d voted for in 1836 – Martin Van Buren. I confess to having merely filed the document and not followed up on it at the time because it seemed fairly insignificant in genealogical terms, but recently I’ve been thinking about what I might be able to find out about the election of 1836 and what it might mean that an ancestor voted for Van Buren rather than one of the other candidates. A quick Wikipedia search has given me a basic knowledge of the election of 1836, but some deeper research is in my future to try to figure out exactly what about Martin Van Buren from New York appealed to a southerner like Griffin Savage.
As I mentioned earlier, voting records can be difficult to locate, but I would suggest starting with the Family Search Wiki and looking at the information found under the key words “Voting Registers.” The article gives a good overview of the states and what records are available for each. Family Search has a number of voting registers that can be found by doing a place search for a specific state and county. A quick look at what’s there seems to indicate that most of these records are only available on microfilm which means that a search of them will have to wait until the Family History Library re-opens after the pandemic, but putting them on the to-do list is a good way to keep them in mind for the future.
Luckily, Ancestry has a good collection of voting registers online on their website. They can be found by searching the card catalog for a specific state and county. One huge collection is California’s Great Registers which are voting registers organized by county for the populous state of California. Other states have similar registers, although some states seem to have very few or no voting registers available.
Another place to search for voting registers is the state archives for the various states as well as local archives and libraries in the county of interest. Some of the state archives have many records online so it’s definitely worth checking to see what might be found. For example, the Wyoming State Archives has poll lists for the various Wyoming counties which can be searched online.
Even if you don’t find records for your ancestors, it’s still worth spending a little time thinking about what elections an ancestor might have voted in. Reading a town newspaper from the time period of a specific election can often reveal what the local population was thinking concerning the various candidates. Local newspapers often published lists of election results containing the numbers of folks who voted for each candidate. This can be especially interesting if one of your ancestors ran for election for a local office.
If you haven’t thought about looking at election records, right now is a great time to do so while we’re all thinking about voting and what it means to us.
Researcher/Director at Large