Voting and the law

The value of records

If you’re a member of the National Genealogical Society — and you should be — then you should be reading the NGS blog, UpFront with NGS. (You don’t have to be an NGS member to read UpFront with NGS, but The Legal Genealogist believes it’s only fair to pay your dues, literally as well as figuratively, so I do.)

Yesterday’s UpFront with NGS blog asked this question: “What resources have helped you learn more about your ancestor, elections and voting?” And it gave links to some terrific resources for learning more about the voting history of our ancestors. Check them out — they may give you some leads you hadn’t thought about before.

But let’s ask the question a little differently: what questions about our ancestors can voting records help answer?

Case in point: my brother-in-law’s great grandfather John H. McCune was born in Bath County, Virginia, shortly after the Civil War. But there’s a question as to exactly when he was born.

Some records support a conclusion that he was born in March, 1868. For example:

     • On the 1870 U.S. census, he was enumerated (as of 1 June 1870) as two years old.1

     • His October 1893 marriage record gives his age then as 25.2

     • The 1900 U.S. census shows him (as of 1 June 1900) as 32 years old and born in March 1868.3

But other records support a conclusion that John was born in March 1869. For example:

     • On the 1880 U.S. census, he was enumerated (as of 1 June 1880) as 11 years old.4

     • John’s death certificate, for which his son Thomas was the informant, gives his date of birth as 3 March 1869.5

     • 1869 is the date on his tombstone.6

But Virginia law for almost all of its history, until the adoption of the 26th amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1971,7 required that a person be 21 years of age in order to vote.8

So age — the date of birth — was the critical factor in a person’s ability to register and vote in The Old Dominion. It was the one thing the law looked at all the time, regardless of race, gender or other restrictions on voting. It was the duty of the registrar to make sure only qualified people — people of age — were registered and voted. And so it was important for the registrar to get that fact right. The legal obligation imposed on the registrar makes this particularly valuable evidence of a person’s age.

And John was a registered voter.

The voter registration books don’t exist in their entirety for Bath County, but enough of them do, and conducting the good genealogist’s reasonably exhaustive search in those records helps answer the question about John H. McCune:

Documents like this,9 taken together with all the other evidence, permit the sound conclusion that John was born in 1868, not 1869.


 
SOURCES

  1. 1870 U.S. census, Bath County, Virginia, Williamsville Township, population schedule, p. 22 (penned), dwelling 158, family 158, John McCune; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 23 May 2011); citing National Archive microfilm publication M593, roll 1635; imaged from FHL microfilm 553,134.
  2. Bath County, Virginia, Marriage Register 2 (1883-1897), chronologically arranged, John H. McCune and Mary H. Smith, 24 October 1893; Circuit Court Clerk’s Office, Warm Springs.
  3. 1900 U.S. census, Bath County, Virginia, Williamsville Township, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 44, sheet 10A, p. 55A (stamped), dwelling 189, family 190, John H. McCune; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 14 April 2011); citing National Archive microfilm publication T623, roll 1701.
  4. 1880 U.S. census, Bath County, Virginia, Williamsville Township, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 28, p. 14B (penned), dwelling 110, family 112, John McCune; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 23 May 2011); citing National Archive microfilm publication T9, roll 1355; imaged from FHL microfilm 1,255,355.
  5. Virginia Department of Health, death certificate no. 13934 (1931), John Hopkins McCune, 30 June 1931; Bureau of Vital Statistics, Richmond.
  6. Westminster Chapel Cemetery (McClung, Bath County, Virginia; on Westminster Road (Virginia State Road 624) 3.69 miles northeast of the intersection with Edison Roberts Road (Virginia State Road 609), Latitude 38° 6’25.16”N, Longitude 79°38’47.25”W), John H. and Mary S. McCune marker; photograph by J.G. Russell, 7 May 2011.
  7. See generally Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Twenty-sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution,” rev. 5 Nov 2012.
  8. See e.g. “An act for regulating the election of Burgesses, for declaring their privileges and allowances, and for fixing the rights of electors,” Chapter I, § V, Laws of December 1769, in William Waller Hening, compiler, Hening’s Statutes at Law, Being a Collection of all the Laws of Virginia from the first session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619, 14 vols. (1819-1823; reprint ed., Charlottesville: Jamestown Foundation, 1969), 8: 307 (“no feme sole or covert, infant under the age of twenty-one, recusant convict, or any person convicted in Great-Britain or Ireland, during the time for which he is transported, nor any free negro, mulatto, or Indian, although such persons be free holders, shall have a vote”).
  9. Bath County, Virginia, Williamsville Magisterial District, Crawfords’ Mills Precinct, Voter Registration Book, alphabetized, c1903; Bath County Historical Society, Warm Springs.
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6 Responses to Voting and the law

  1. Concetta says:

    Judy, do you find that these voter registration books are most often with the local historical society, or do they end up staying with the local county offices?

    I’m fascinated by this as I have not yet looked into the voting records of my family and am wondering if a small treasure like this still exists in Michigan, where most of my family is from.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      There’s no one answer to this, Concetta. Every county is different and you’ll need to check in the county where you’re hoping to find the records to see what agency originally had the records and what might have happened to them. As long as you’re NOT in election season (when the local election board really hasn’t got time to breathe), starting with the local election board and working backwards is a good idea.

  2. In looking into the voting history of ancestors, do you ever come upon evidence of voting discrimination and voter suppression such as we have seen lately?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I’ve only been focusing on individuals in my research, Mariann, so I haven’t seen that sort of evidence. But I’ll bet newspapers were full of reports from every election.

  3. Keith Bouldin says:

    Judy,
    voting records are a great resource, one that I had not thought about using to establish birth information.
    Thanks for the lead on that.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Just remember, Keith: by itself, no one record is enough. You always want to gather all the reasonably available records and then mine them for evidence from which you draw your conclusions!

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