Elections as a Genealogical Source

Submitted by Seema Kenney

Town Reports are often touted as good sources for genealogical as well as social history information. Indeed, I have found several interesting facts in old town reports—on children as well as adults.

Like many other sources, town reports point to additional potential sources. While records of committees or boards served on may be an obvious “next step” from town reports, there is another next step that is more hidden from view.

In the description of Election Proceedings, there is probably a paragraph or more that gives the names of those working at the election in various precincts. What is not always included there is the additional source of the clerk’s log.

At a date I am unable to determine, 950 C.M.R. Section 54.01(4) went into effect. I know the date was before 1979 because that was the oldest revision to the regulation available at the State House Library. This Commonwealth of Massachusetts Regulation contains all facts relating to the proceedings of an election that are required by law to be recorded. This includes the following, which might interest a genealogist:

  • Names and addresses of any challenged voters and the person making the challenge
  • Names and addresses of any provisional voters
  • Any facts unique to that election
  • Names and titles of the election officers present
  • Which election officers were present for the counting of the ballots

As with so many governmental regulations, the practice of 950 C.M.R. Section 54.01(4) probably varies greatly in the 351 towns within Massachusetts. Still, the town that I am familiar with includes in the Election Clerk’s log several nuggets of information that will help a genealogist add context to those ancestral character sketches.

The 2012 Annual Town Report for Upton, Massachusetts, will tell you that I worked the check-in table for Precinct Two during the presidential election on November 6, 2012. The Precinct Two Election Clerk’s log will tell you the exact hours of the day that I worked and my political affiliation at the time of my service. In addition, the Election Clerk’s log will have a notation of the daily weather.

If your ancestor served as a police officer in town, the Election Clerk’s log includes a notation for the officer on duty. Was there one officer for the entire day or different officers with half-day shifts? Typically, any officer mentioned will also include the rank within the police department.

If you have an interest in political history, a review of the Election Clerks’ logs will demonstrate the history of voting within a town. A required item for this record is any issue that occurs during the voting. The clerk’s notes would thus reveal whether paper or electronic ballots or voting machines are used within the town. In addition, reviewing several clerks’ record books would help determine how quickly the town grew, as a certain amount of growth will require a new voting precinct.

If your ancestor was a resident in a smaller town, and served as Election Clerk, you may also have the pleasure of reading something written in his or her own hand! And, of course, it will include the clerk’s signature underneath the closing phrase.

As a matter of tradition, other items may be included that are not mandated by the formal regulation. In Upton, this includes the name and address of the first male and first female voter for each precinct with the time of their entrance into the polling place. This could mean a legal record that indicates the exact hour and minute that your ancestor arrived to perform his or her civic duty!