Using Ancestry: Inside the California Voter Registration Database, by Denise Platt Stewart

Grandpa was a drug dealer–or so he claimed when he registered to vote in the city of Oakland, Alameda County, in 1924. That’s just one discovery made while searching the recently posted database, the California Voter Registrations, 1900-1968 on Ancestry.
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This was news to me. After years of research and long talks with my Dad before he died last May, I knew that my immigrant grandfather, Frederick Platt Sr., was fluent in German, French, Italian, Latin, and English and had worked as a technical translator in the Entomology Department at the University of California, Berkeley. While I realized that he had held a variety of jobs after WWI and during the Depression, I wondered about this latest occupational label, and set out to learn more.

About the Database
The Ancestry collection chronicles voter registration in most California counties from 1900 through 1944; a few extend to the 1960s. Though the data varies from year to year, it usually documents the voter’s name, address, occupation, and registration district (precinct or ward) within each county. In addition to Democrats (DEM) and Republicans (REP), voter preferences may also include the Progressive (PROG), Socialist (SOC), Prohibition (PROH), or even Communist (CST) party. Voters could also “Decline to state” (DEC) their political affiliation.

Charting Political Trends
Finding Grandpa Platt in the database was easy. Using the wildcard search “Fred*” along with his surname and “Alameda County” produced eighteen hits, which I narrowed to sixteen when I looked at the time frame during which he lived in California.

From 1912 until 1934, my grandfather consistently registered as a Republican, though his occupation varied from department manager to auctioneer to accountant, as well as the brief stint in 1924 when he apparently sold pharmaceuticals or worked in an apothecary–a.k.a. a drug dealer in those days! However, in 1936 both he and my grandmother, Claire A. Platt, registered as Democrats, and continued that way through the last record found in 1944. What happened between 1934 and 1936 that might have influenced their political leanings?

To help identify possible reasons for their changing parties, I printed a list of the U.S. presidents, their terms of office, and their party affiliation. I also created a spreadsheet listing the various database criteria, and copied the data from the records of my California relatives for each year in which I found them.  This provided a snapshot of how their voting preferences compared to the party in office during any given term.  Now I could see “at a glance” any changes in address, occupation, or politics for up to four decades.

Corroborating Other Sources
The years covered by this collection were marked by three significant events: World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. How might these eras have affected my family’s voting habits?

My paternal grandparents’ party-change occurred during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, when programs under the New Deal, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Works Progress Administration (WPA) were introduced, primarily to combat unemployment. FDR also signed the Social Security Act in 1935, which provided unemployment insurance, along with pensions to the elderly through payroll taxes.

A few years ago I had used the Social Security Database Index (SSDI) at Ancestry to order a copy of my grandfather’s original application for a Social Security Card. As it turns out, he’d enrolled in 1937 and listed his employer as “WPA Project 5777, U. of C. Berkeley.” And, from information collected on the 1930 census, I had also learned that my grandparents had a radio. They would likely have tuned in to Roosevelt’s fireside chats. Though I can’t be certain, I deduced that the promise of secure employment, made possible through programs such as the WPA and SSA, might have influenced the Platt family politics at that time (though later evidence would show that they returned to their Republican roots following Eisenhower’s leadership during WWII).

Search Strategies
Finding my maternal ancestors wasn’t quite as simple. My mother’s grandfather, Carlo Rattaro, emigrated in 1889 from the rural Italian village of Vegni, about 100 miles east of Torino. Like many of his countrymen who came to America from that region, he settled in San Francisco. Though I’d located him before in numerous records at Ancestry, a search by “exact” surname yielded no results. Traditional wildcard and Soundex options were also unsuccessful or produced too many choices to effectively examine.

Fortunately, “Nonnu Rattaro” had always been a grocer and owned property on Amazon Avenue, so the keyword search seemed the best bet for finding him. I typed his first name and the keywords “grocer” and “Amazon” in San Francisco County and, “Eureka!” I found him! Since he wasn’t naturalized until 1909, he first appears in the database in 1910, and thence up until 1936 (two years before his death in 1938).

Given the destruction of many vital records in the fires following the 1906 earthquake, Bay Area researchers may find this database useful in tracking their ancestors’ whereabouts at that time.

California and Equal Suffrage
As we witness several “firsts” in the coming 2008 elections, historians and family genealogists alike may benefit from remembering those who paved the way for women’s right to vote nearly a century ago.

As such, this database is a gold mine for those searching for their female ancestors. For decades prior to passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920, California’s politically active pioneers campaigned vigorously and finally succeeded when, in October 1911, California became the sixth state in the union to adopt equal suffrage.

Some notable California suffragettes who can be found in the database include:

  • San Francisco’s Maud Younger, famous for her pamphlet “Why Wage-Earning Women Should Vote,” among other activist roles she played;
  • Laura Bride Powers, Bay Area journalist and, from 1907-08, editor of “Western Woman,” ‘Weekly Advocate of Political Equality and Allied Interests;’ and
  • Los Angeles’ Charlotta Spears Bass, who published pro-suffrage editorials as owner of California’s largest African American newspaper, the “California Eagle.”

Though none of my female forebears appear to have been active in the movement, their names appear throughout this database, evincing their pride in the power of the vote.

The Ancestry launch of this invaluable collection is well timed with this year’s history-making elections. We can honor our ancestors’ struggles and sacrifices not only by studying their past, but also by exercising our own right to vote and thereby creating a legacy for future generations.

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Denise Platt Stewart is a native Californian and professional genealogist who has been researching for family, friends, and clients from San Francisco to Ellis Island.  A former teacher and a former education sales and marketing manager for a major technology company, Denise now resides in Cincinnati with her husband Bill, and Marvin the cat. She can be reached at livefromdenise@aol.com.

4 thoughts on “Using Ancestry: Inside the California Voter Registration Database, by Denise Platt Stewart

  1. Hi Denise,

    Thank you so much for your article. I wondered how my great grandmother was able to vote in 1914 and this explains it. I’ve printed your article to save with the page I’ve printed from the CA voter registration database with my grandmother’s name on it.

    Thanks again,

    Carol Harrison

  2. I was disappointed in the California Voter Registration search engine. When I searched a name, it game me results showing the first and last name somewhere on the page but not necessarily together. A search for Richard Roberts brought up a page with a Richard (someone) and later on the page Delia Roberts.

  3. I was also disappointed, searched for William Burch but got William (someone) and (someone) Burch.

    Please explain why this is happening and when it will be corrected. Thank you.

    Denise, thank you for your article.

    Jackie Burch

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