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Ancestry has a collection "California, Voter Registrations, 1900-1968". This consists of images of various documents relating to Electoral Registers. In particular, I am looking at the images for San Francisco 1920. I would like to understand how to interpret the dates on what I am calling the Precinct Header.

Precinct Header

The date bit reads: "To and including April 3, 1920". What does this mean? The data in this Index to a Register must have been collected at a certain point and thus represent the situation at that date (errors and omissions excepted) - can that date be (roughly or accurately) deduced from the April 3 1920 date? So taking Ciro Anzalone as an example: He is recorded as being at 1131 Ocean Avenue. Can we say when he was there?

Two background points to explain this, perhaps: I am trying to trace a family whose mother is known by me as "Infamous Annie" for the fact that she never appears with the same husband in consecutive censuses until she gets fairly deep into middle age. Turns out her son, Bert, has at least one similar episode and I am trying to align Directories, Registers and Censuses to work out the story of Bert and his wife. I am convinced he's telling stories in at least one of the Directories but I'm also puzzled about the data in the 1920 Electoral Register and the 1920 Census.

My initial assumption was to interpret these Registers like UK Electoral Registers. Our 1930 Register, for instance, applied for the whole of 1930 but represented the situation at the qualifying date of 1 June 1929. I was therefore imagining the qualifying / effective date for this San Francisco register to be well before 3 April 1920. But that makes no sense in terms of what the Register and Census are then saying to me about Bert's wife leaving him and then returning.

  • I referenced "1131 Ocean Avenue" in my answer because that was the address of your example person. Feel free to send me an email with the address of your research subjects if you want help, but don't want to post that address here. – Jan Murphy Jul 26 '16 at 1:53
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Before every election in the US, there is a cutoff date by which one has to be registered to vote -- if you miss the cutoff, you can't vote in that area. People who are already registered to vote in California and move to another area may be able to vote provisionally -- I would have to look up the rules. But every step of the process has a similar cutoff date: e.g. in this June's primary, the deadline to apply to vote by mail had to be in the Registrar's office by 5:00 PM on May 31, 2016.

I would read that April 3, 1920 to mean that these are all the voters who have registered to vote or have submitted a change of address to the Registrar of voters through the end of that business day (to and including means it is inclusive of that date). This is likely to determine whether they could vote in an election sometime in June of the same year. Can you browse back to the beginning of the volume to find more information in the front matter?

If not, how else would we check this? If this were a contemporary question, we could look up the rules in the current California statutes online by reading and searching the Election Codes. So we need to find out what the rules were for April 1920, and to do this, we need to find the statutes that were in effect in April 1920. Michael Hait, CG, demonstrated how to do this in his recent webinar, “Finding and Using Online Legal Resources”, which was presented at GRIP. Unfortunately the link for California statutes online which was listed in his handout is no longer valid:

California State Assembly, Office of the Chief Clerk, Archive: http://www.assembly.ca.gov/clerk/archive

Searching on Google for the title in Hait's handout gave me a working page, California State Assembly Statutes, which is here: http://clerk.assembly.ca.gov/archive-list?archive_type=statutes

(I'm leaving both links in the answer to give people more targets to search for in case the website gets redesigned again. Plugging any once-working link into the Wayback Machine at Archive.org would give an entry point, if you need to try and dig for it that way.)

Hait also demonstrated how to look for results in printed versions of the California Statutes via Google Books, the Internet Archive, or Hathi Trust.

If you don't have any luck plunging into and searching or browsing the 1920-era code, try the inchworm brute force method -- find the relevant section of today's code, then use the references to the law which was superseded to walk backwards through the historical statutes until you reach the period which is just before your target date. Another complication is that some statutes take effect as soon as they are passed, while others don't come into effect until a certain date, so if you have to pin things down very specifically, you have to watch out for that as well.

These registers will be prone to the same problems as other printed references -- people could move and not bother to give their new address to the Registrar of Voters, and so an old address might linger in the rolls. The rules about whether you can vote at your old precinct if you have moved recently, or whether you can use a provisional ballot at your new precinct should be outlined in the electoral code.

I haven't moved in quite a long time, but I vote regularly, so I am still on the rolls at the same address. However, we aren't required to show ID or prove our address -- we only tell the poll worker our address, and they have us sign to confirm we showed up at our precinct. If you don't vote regularly, they may purge you from the rolls -- again, the electoral code should say.

All this assumes, of course, that the poll workers and the registrar of voters did what they were supposed to do, which isn't a safe assumption.

I have a divorced couple in my research who appeared at the same address for years, which puzzled me. I thought that it was just one of those stale directory entries. Eventually I came to my senses and realized that the address was an apartment building -- it's also possible that the husband moved out and got another apartment in the same building.

I would start by looking up what kind of building 1131 Ocean Avenue is, to see if it is a single-family residence or a multi-family residence. If you can get at historical property tax information, that would tell you who owned the building and could yield other clues. Since the address you're looking for is post 1906, it could be a relatively recent dwelling.

Also don't neglect historical newspapers, which could tell you something about the neighborhood or have reminders and news articles about voter registration deadlines. The California Digital Newspaper Collection might be a good place to start. And don't forget historical maps!


Very important addendum:

Remember that this is 1920. Census Day in the US was January 1st, 1920. San Francisco's actual enumeration days should not be that far off from census day itself -- they are far less likely to be affected by weather than other parts of the country. But this census is the outlier when it comes to US Census Days, which otherwise are in April or June. As with any US Federal Census, it's a crapshoot whether the householders gave the information that was current as of census day or as of enumeration day, or that anyone from the household gave the enumerator the data. If you haven't looked into the nitty gritty of the US Federal Census already, see Who Talked to the Census Taker? by archivist Claire Prechtel-Kluskens for resources, and Michael Hait's US Federal Census Pathfinder.

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    "Can you browse back to the beginning of the volume to find more information in the front matter?" For the 1920 stuff, the first page is of identical format to the Precinct Header I attached. It is genuinely the start of the physical book as it includes the image of the spine of the book. – AdrianB38 Jul 26 '16 at 20:12
  • ... Yes, this may take me some time! – AdrianB38 Jul 26 '16 at 21:12
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    URL: sfpl.org/?pg=2000126101 contains links to the "San Francisco Voter Pamphlets and Propositions". Because it's from the SF Public Library, they go right back to 1907 (not a continuous list I think). So far as I can see, the titles denote the date of the election. (Crikey - looking at those Ordinances - is that the sort of stuff San Franciscans have to vote on?) – AdrianB38 Jul 27 '16 at 21:01
  • Right -- the date on the cover is the date of the election the pamphlet belongs to. And yes, indeed -- in every election, in addition to a sample ballot, California voters receive a big booklet of state and local propositions to vote on, along with neutral analysis by legislative analysts. – Jan Murphy Jul 28 '16 at 5:44
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    I've written this up below, @Jan Murphy - can you have a read and see if it makes sense? Thanks – AdrianB38 Jul 28 '16 at 21:24
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Current California Legislative Information on elections includes this provision:

"ARTICLE 5. Voter Registration Index [2180 - 2194.1] ( Article 5 enacted by Stats. 1994, Ch. 920, Sec. 2. )

"2180.
"(a) At least once, and more often if he or she deems it necessary, within each two-year period commencing on the first day of January in each odd-numbered year, the county elections official shall have printed a complete index, by precinct, to the affidavits of registration current at the date of printing."

I have not followed this clause back in time but this roughly matches to the San Francisco data in Ancestry's collection "California, Voter Registrations, 1900-1968", in that full indexes to the electoral register at the time in question appear every two years (albeit dated in the even years), while those dated in the odd years are supplementary indexes that appear to contain new or moved voters only. The equivalent of this clause, therefore, drove the Indexes visible on Ancestry. Note that on a very swift look, I have not yet found other Indexes that contain a date - I only checked some for Sacramento and Alameda counties.

Election dates (or some at least) can be obtained from San Francisco Public Library's San Francisco Voter Pamphlets and Propositions, which go back to 1907 - completeness of coverage not known. By comparison to Sacramento newspapers in California Digital Newspaper Collection, it can be established that (at least as far as Sacramento goes) there were more elections than implied by the dates in San Francisco Voter Pamphlets and Propositions. (Why Sacramento newspapers? Because there don't appear to be any San Francisco papers for that period on CDNC).

I suggest that the significance of the date on the Californian Indexes to the Electoral Registers is that this is the date by which people had to be registered in order to appear in the Indexes used for the forthcoming election(s).

Is there any evidence of this? I believe that there are no San Francisco newspapers covering this period in CDNC, so I have had to check in Sacramento newspapers for registration deadlines - I assume that there is at least some likelihood that Sacramento and San Francisco used similar procedures and dates. The Sacramento newspapers contain various articles mentioning deadlines for voter registrations. I include below only even-year Sacramento events as the San Francisco Indexes for odd-years are less usual.

The dates from the Ancestry indexes, dates of SF elections and deadlines from even-years in Sacramento look like this:

SF Election = Nov 7, 1916 (General, with Propositions); Index dated to 29 July 1916 (same date as Registration deadline in Sacramento)

SF Election = Oct 30, 1917 (Special); SF Election = November 6, 1917 (General Municipal); Supplementary index, dated to 6 October 1917

SF Election = November 5, 1918 (General); Index dated to 27 July 1918 (same date as Registration deadline in Sacramento)

No evidence re SF elections in 1919; Supplementary Index dated to 4 October 1919

SF Election = November 2, 1920 (General); Index dated to 3 April 1920 (same date as Registration deadline in Sacramento)

No evidence re SF elections in 1921; Supplementary Index dated to 8 October 1921

SF Election = November 7, 1922 (General); Index dated to 29 July 1922 (same date as Registration deadline in Sacramento)

SF Election = November 6 1923 (General Municipal); Supplementary Index dated to 6 October 1923

SF Election = October 7, 1924 (Special); SF Election = November 4, 1924 (General); Index dated to 5 April 1924 (No evidence from Sacramento papers - may not be in CDNC)

The Registration deadlines for Sacramento in the even years match the dates on the San Francisco Indexes. The indexes are dated before the SF elections in that year. Hence I consider that I have shown my proposal to be true - the date on the index is the date by which people had to be registered in order to appear in the Indexes used for the forthcoming election(s).

For the purposes of family history, we can therefore start with the idea that the data in the Indexes is "true" at the printed date, with the proviso that people may have moved and not registered at their new address.

Note 1 - General elections should be held on the same dates across the whole state. Special elections may relate to specific counties only.

Note 2 - For UK genealogists - General elections in this context are (at least) state-wide elections, whereas UK General elections refer specifically to the level of the UK (though other elections may take place on the same date).

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  • Why Sacramento newspapers? It's a good choice because Sacramento is the state capital (since 1854). en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Sacramento,_California – Jan Murphy Jul 28 '16 at 22:54
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    Dates for general elections should be the same statewide. There might be special elections held from time to time held in some counties but not others. For adjacent counties to the City and County of San Francisco, see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Francisco_Bay_Area – Jan Murphy Jul 28 '16 at 23:06
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    Also check historical newspapers online at the Library of Congress (to 1922) chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/search/titles and the US Newspaper Directory (see blue button at top right of screen) to see library holdings (which will tell you which newspapers were published then and survive in libraries). Then check The Ancestor Hunt for other links to online California newspapers theancestorhunt.com/blog/… – Jan Murphy Jul 28 '16 at 23:12
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    Thanks @JanMurphy - I chose Sacramento partly because it was one of the major places outside SF that I recognised - I even knew it was the state capital! I have bookmarked The Ancestor Hunt - based on that, I got the idea that the Chronicling America included later editions of the SF Call but it turns out that they only have the same range as CDNC - a touch of confusion over date of publication v. date of on-line coverage, alas. – AdrianB38 Jul 31 '16 at 16:45
  • The US Newspaper Directory is a good starting point because it will give you the catalog listing for what physical issues actually survived and can be found in libraries. Digital editions will likely be a subset of those. California Online Historical Newspapers is also useful and easier (at least for me) to read than The Ancestor Hunt. – Jan Murphy Jul 31 '16 at 16:50

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