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One unexpected exception

We all know what it took for an ancestor to be eligible to vote.

It doesn’t matter if it’s The Legal Genealogist‘s southern ancestors, or the ancestors of folks who are here in the Pacific Northwest attending the opening sessions of the Northwest Genealogy Conference 2015 in Arlington, Washington.

If they were voters, our ancestors were:

• Age 21 or older.

• Male.

• Almost exclusively white.

• And citizens.

Oh, there were exceptions that we’ve come across. There are always exceptions.

Ballot BoxThere were some women who could vote, particularly in places like New Jersey from 1776 to 1807,1 and later when women began to get the vote at least in local elections. And non-whites sometimes could vote as well, even before the Civil Rights amendments after the Civil War, particularly in both the early years in both New Jersey and Maryland.2

But that’s it for the exceptions, right?

You know better than that.

We always have to check the law, at the time and in the place where our ancestors lived.

And out here in the western territories, there was an exception to the voting rules that means that an awful lot of our ancestors might have been on the voting rolls before we think they should have been — or could have been.

Out here, in the Territory of Washington, as far back as 1854, the one thing our ancestors didn’t have to be…?

They didn’t have to be citizens.

At least — not yet.

As enacted by the first Washington Territorial Legislature in 1854, the law provided — as we would all have expected — that “all white male inhabitants over the age of twenty-one years, who shall have resided within this territory for three months next preceding an election, shall be entitled to vote at any election for delegate to congress, and for territorial, district, county and precinct officers.”3

But the law didn’t stop there.

It went on:

Provided, That they shall be citizens of the United States, or shall have declared, on oath, their intentions to become such, and shall have resided three months in the territory, and fifteen days in the county where they offer to vote, next preceding the day of election…4

Read the highlighted section again.

Our folks didn’t have to be citizens.

Our immigrant ancestors could vote!

As long as those immigrants among our folks — those who were white male over-21 folks, of course — had filed a declaration of intent to become citizens, even though they hadn’t yet been naturalized, they were eligible to vote.

Kind of throws a monkey-wrench into some of our analysis, doesn’t it? Can’t assume that someone on a voting list was born in the United States, or even already naturalized, can we?

Always. Always always always.

Always check the law at the time and place.


  1. See generally New Jersey Constitution of 1776, Article IV, in Francis Newton Thorpe, editor, The Federal and State Constitutions, Colonial Charters, and Other Organic Laws of the States, Territories, and Colonies Now or Heretofore Forming the United States of America. 7 vols. (Washington, D.C. : Government Printing Office, 1909), 5: 2595 ; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 12 Aug 2015).
  2. See ibid., and Maryland Constitution of 1776, Article II, 4: 1691.
  3. §1, “An Act Relating to Elections and the Mode of Supplying Vacancies,” in Statutes of the Territory of Washington, … 1854 (Olympia: Public Printer, 1855), 96; digital images, Washington State Legislature, Office of the Code Reviser, Session Laws ( : accessed 12 Aug 2015).
  4. Ibid.
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