The information contained within voter registration documents can vary greatly from state to state or even county to county, depending on your time frame. It can include:
- registrant’s full name
- length of time he or she has resided in that locale
- physical description of the registrant
- registrant’s state or country of nativity
- date and place of the registrant’s naturalization
- occupation of the registrant
I remember reading an article where the voter registration sheet was the only place a person’s middle name was ever found—it had always been just an initial on other documentation discovered.
Voter registration can reveal length of residency. The 1890 Chicago registry is very detailed about the length of residency. It reveals how long a registrant lived not only in that particular precinct in which he or she was registering, but also how long the person had lived in the county and in the state.
Some registrations list information and physical characteristics of the registrant such as age, race, height, complexion, eye and hair color, and any distinguishing marks or scars.
The birthplace of the registrant is listed, and if the individual was not a natural-born citizen, the date and place of naturalization may be listed.
The occupation of the registrant is also listed and can help explain migration to or from an area.
Now that you know some of the information you may find in a voter registration record, should it still be extant, you need to know where to find the record.
They can be tricky to find. Often, especially with older voter registration documents, they have been destroyed. Sometimes, they were microfilmed before they were destroyed. Other times, they have been removed from the original repository and relocated.
Keep in mind that in the beginning in the United States, only white males of the age of 21 were allowed to vote—and in most places, they had to own property. It wasn’t until the 15th Amendment was passed in 1870 that black males were given the right to vote. Unfortunately, they were often disenfranchised by state laws, poll taxes they could not afford to pay, literacy tests they could not pass, or intimidation.
Also keep in mind that women weren’t allowed to vote until 1920 when the 19th Amendment passed. Immediately after passage, women experienced some of the same disenfranchisement as blacks, in particular, being able to pay the poll taxes and being able to pass the literacy tests.
The place to begin the search is the county in which your ancestor resided. Call the courthouse. Sometimes, they still have the records in the musty basement or creepy attic. If they do not have the record, they should be able to tell you what became of it. Archives, historical societies, libraries, and universities are also good places to call.
Online, Cyndi’s List has many links to voter registration; type “voter registration” into the website search box. Ancestry.com and Familysearch.org also have some voter registration document images and abstracts.
Good luck and happy hunting!