Introduction: In this article – part of an ongoing “Introduction to Genealogy” series – Gena Philibert-Ortega explains why you may not find your ancestor in voting records. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”
Voting registrations are a great source for documenting an ancestor’s location at a specific time (see Genealogy 101: Voting Records). But – unlike the census – they are not a complete list of a location’s population. Not everyone voted, either by choice or because of disenfranchisement. Knowing the history of why an ancestor couldn’t vote and when they could can be the key to finding them in the available voting records.
Let’s explore some of the reasons your ancestor may not have voted.
Poll taxes were a revenue generator for the United States government, beginning with the original colonies. A poll tax is a fixed sum that every person must pay – and, in some states, paying the poll tax was a prerequisite before you were allowed to vote. After the Civil War, poll taxes were used in an effort to stop newly franchised African American men from voting – along with literacy tests, intimidation, and assaults. The implementation of poll taxes helped to ensure that poor men and women were not able to vote.
This 1920 Louisiana newspaper article leaves little doubt that the poll tax was a way to stop people of color from voting. Voters are reminded that if they do not pay their poll tax, they will not be eligible to vote for the next two years. The article ends with the racist admonition to not be a “squaw man,” which refers to a white man married to a Native American woman.
In some cases, poll tax records, along with other tax records, can be found by searching the FamilySearch Catalog.
It’s well known that American women fought for and received the right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, but it’s important to know that women in some states voted decades prior to 1920 in state and local elections. As this 1879 Massachusetts newspaper article details, women in that state were eligible to vote in school committee elections. The names of the women who registered to vote appear in this newspaper article.
Loss of Citizenship
The idea that citizenship is a qualification for voting is a more recent one. Non-citizens have not been allowed to vote in federal elections since 1996, and states had outlawed the practice by the late 1920s.* Prior to that, some states did allow non-citizens to vote. However, it’s possible that your American-born ancestor didn’t vote because they had lost their citizenship. In the early 20th century, men who wanted to serve during World War I – prior to the U.S. entrance into the war – joined our allies in the fight. That act of joining another country’s military (even an ally) meant that, whether the individual man realized it or not, he lost his citizenship.
Another example of Americans losing their citizenship is when American women in the early 1900s married men who were not U.S. citizens. Women’s citizenship was considered derivative and based on the citizenship of their father or husband. The law was changed in 1922, but women whom it affected could not vote until they applied for citizenship or later took an oath of allegiance reinstating their citizenship. That’s not to say that some of them didn’t vote anyway, not knowing they had lost their citizenship, but it could be a reason for them not voting.
Not Everyone Voted, but It’s Still Important to Look for Voting Records
Voting records are a great source for documenting where a person was at a specific place in time, but it’s important to remember that not everyone is documented in these records. Reasons for not finding an ancestor in voting records can stem from a historical event – or they simply didn’t bother to exercise their right to vote. Use voting records as one more place to look for your ancestor, but make sure that you don’t make assumptions about their absence from those records.
* “Right of foreigners to vote in the United States,” Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Right_of_foreigners_to_vote_in_the_United_States: accessed 2 November 2018).