Genealogists seek any scrap of information that places our ancestors in the context of place and time. As we reach back farther in time, this can become difficult as surviving records become spotty.
Voting is a practice that has been around since before America was founded, so there is opportunity to locate records that were created related to the political process. Election campaigns and voting laws may have resulted in a paper trail that helps us locate information about our ancestors involvement in the political process.
Voters had to register. Often finding a voters list may be a research lifesaver, especially in the eras where census records many not be extant. Because elections were taken more often than the decennial censuses, they are a great substitute to placing a person in a specific geographic area in a given year.
Consider what is available by conducting a catalog search for “voter” at Ancestry.com. There are 14 searchable databases for various areas:
Similarly, consider the holdings of the Family History Library by searching the catalog at FamilySearch.org. There are over 1,200 results, although many of them are books or microfilmed records that are not yet available to search online. The microfilm can be rented to view at a local Family History Center or Affiliate Library, but books must be viewed in Salt Lake City at the Family History Library.
Voting has not always been available to all segments of the population. Although Wyoming was the first U.S. state to allow women to vote in 1869, not all states held the same views on equality. The women’s suffrage movement worked hard for many years to establish the right to vote; however, women didn’t gain the right to vote in all states until well into the 20th century when the 19th Amendment was passed on May 19, 1919.
And other segments of the population have been disenfranchised over the years. After the Civil War, many areas passed laws that implemented poll taxes or other measures that limited the rights of blacks or poor whites from voting. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and other discriminatory practices.
Political campaigns of the past were just as heated as they are today, although the newspaper ads and broadsides of yesteryear have been replaced by TV ads and pre-recorded robocalls today. If an ancestor ran for political office, chances are good that evidence may be found in newspaper or ephemera collections.
A great place to start looking is at the Library of Congress: the Chronicling America collection contains over 8 million pages of digitized newspapers 1836-1922, and the American Memory collection contains “An American Time Capsule: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera.” Many states also have digitized newspaper projects, and even small-town local libraries might have microfilm copies or the original newsprint in their collections.
Although most genealogists are researching for deceased ancestors, present-day voters lists may be available in some states. For instance, Colorado open voter laws allow anyone to buy a copy of the registered voter list for $50. This list contains names, addresses, and birth years of anyone registered to vote.
A genealogy website has been setup for Colorado voters at Coloradovoters.info. This site currently contains all the registered Colorado voters as of September 2, 2014. In reviewing the site, I see that it does contain my personal information, as well as my husband’s and his ex-wife—the only 3 Coutants publicly registered to vote in Colorado.
Although genealogists rejoice when finding records about their ancestors, they may not be as thrilled about having their own personal voter info publicly available while they are still living, citing privacy concerns. Colorado voters can ask for a confidential voter form if they do not wish to appear on the public list; the form is available from the county clerk and recorder’s office for a $5 fee.
But once information is on a website list like Coloradovoters.info, it may not be that easy to have personal information removed. If the website’s “Our Policies” page is consulted, it provides information in an in-your-face-tone for “calm, sensible persons” and “hot-headed crazies” to submit a notarized request to be removed from the list.
Love it or hate it, public records are one of the most common ways we are able to conduct genealogical research. If you have an opinion on having voter information publicly available, please comment below. And don’t forget to vote today if you haven’t already!