Denied the Right to Vote – Transcribing Records

Today, I want to draw your attention to a question in the 1870 census.

How many ancestors have you found on this census?  Have you “noticed” if information is recorded in columns 19 & 20 for these ancestors?

Questions #19 & #20 (last two columns) ask: “male citizens 21 and over, and number of such persons whose right to vote is denied or abridged on grounds other than “rebellion or other crime”.

The 1870 census instructions to Assistant Marshals were as follows:


Upon the answers to the questions under this head will depend the distribution of representative power in the General Government. It is therefore imperative that this part of the enumeration should be performed with absolute accuracy. Every male person born within the United States, who has attained the age of 21 years, is a citizen of the United States by force of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution; also, all person born out of the limits and jurisdiction of the United States, whose fathers at the time of their birth were citizens of the United States (act of February 10, 1855); also, all persons born out of the limits and jurisdiction of the United States, who have been declared by judgment of court to have been duly naturalized, having taken out both “papers.” 

The part of the enumerator’s duty which relates to column 19 is therefore easy, but it is none the less of importance. It is a matter of more delicacy to obtain the information required by column 20. Many persons never try to vote, and therefore do not know whether their right to vote is or is not abridged. It is not only those whose votes have actually been challenged, and refused at the polls for some disability or want of qualification, who must be reported in this column; but all who come within the scope of any State law denying or abridging suffrage to any class or individual on any other ground than participation in rebellion, or legal conviction of crime. Assistant marshals, therefore, will be required to carefully study the laws of their own States in these respects, and to satisfy themselves, in the case of each male citizen of the United States above the age of 21 years, whether he does or does not, come within one of these classes. 

As the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution, prohibiting the exclusion from the suffrage of any person on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude, has become the law of the land, all State laws working such exclusion have ceased to be of virtue. If any person is, in any State, still practically denied the right to vote by reason of any such State laws not repealed, that denial is merely an act of violence, of which the courts may have cognizance, but which does not come within the view of marshals and their assistants in respect to the census. 


NARA tries to decipher the instructions for us:

  • “In other words, was the person denied the right to vote in violation of the 15th amendment, which guarantees citizenship, due process, and equal protection under the law for men regardless of race”.

For those of you (like me) who wish they paid attention in 5th grade history, Wikipedia explains:

  • The Fifteenth Amendment (Amendment XV) to the United States Constitution prohibits each government in the United States from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen’s “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” (i.e., slavery). It was ratified on February 3, 1870

But….It seems, to find the real reason that your ancestor was denied the right to vote, you will have to research the local and state laws on eligibility for voting requirements in the state where he lived in that year.


  • “In colonial America, voters were required to have a “stake in society,” meaning they either had to pay taxes or own a certain amount of land, and some colonies added their own restrictions onto this by excluding voters who followed certain religions. Voting rights varied throughout the colonies, and in some cities just 40% to 50% of white men were ruled eligible to vote.
  • Following the American Revolution, most states eliminated religious requirements for voting, but many still required voters to be taxpayers. Vermont was the first state to get rid of all property and taxpaying qualifications for voting and was one of only six states that allowed free African-Americans to vote. In the early 1800’s, men who didn’t own property and political parties seeking to gain more support, pressured states to expand voting rights. The property requirement was soon thrown out, and some states began to allow immigrants who intended to become citizens to vote”.

From Voting Rights History

  • “Adoption of the 15th Amendment in 1870 extends voting rights to Black males — in theory.
  • In reality, there is massive resistance to the intent of the 15th Amendment, particularly in the Southern states, but also in the North and Midwest. Violence and economic reprisal are used to intimidate and prevent Black men from voting.
  • The 15th Amendment does not apply to Native-Americans or Asians because they cannot be citizens. Similarly, it does not apply to Mexican-Americans in New Mexico and Arizona because they live in “territories” that are not yet states. While legally eligible to vote in Texas and California, Mexican-Americans are still denied the vote through violence and economic retaliation”.

That’s all for today’s history lesson.  Sad that most of us take our rights to vote for granted and many of us don’t exercise those rights…

I must confess that I had never noticed this column until taking a genealogy course at Boston University where they suggested that researchers transcribe each document, even if it is typed – census, birth, death, deeds, probate, etc.

I find that this practice forces me to read and digest each piece of information. It also doesn’t hurt to list the other surnames on the page (and perhaps even the preceding and following pages).  I find this information useful when an ancestor “goes missing” from a census, I search for his neighbors.  This way I also “notice” matching surnames (potential relatives) and potential candidates for married daughters…stuff that I may not have picked up until months later (or never).

My short (related) story :

My Lithuanian relatives (who lived in Pittsfield and Athol, MA) changed their surname from Baltrunas to Billings. Brothers were Anthony, Charles (my grandfather) and Ralph.

I  found a draft registration card at dated 12 Sep 1918 for an Anthony George Baltrunas born 20 Apr 1900 listed as living on 289 First Street in Pittsfield, MA.  Birth place is listed as Russia. Nearest relative is listed as Anthony Gaston also of 289 First Street.  

I had sort of dismissed this record as being my Lithuanian G-Uncle. The ship manifest of “Anton” and his mom, dated April 1902, listed him as being 36 months of age, thus born in 1899. The family disappeared from the Pittsfield city directories in 1918 and began to appear in Athol, MA directories – I assumed that he moved with the family. I didn’t have the Gaston’s as a related surname. Not to mention that Anthony’s father arrived at Ellis Island on 7 April 1900, meaning he would have left behind a wife who was ready to deliver any day!!

But…  The 1930 Pittsfield census has a Charles Billings, single, age 25, born in MA, both parents born in Lithuania, listed as a boarder at 387 Draper Avenue at the home of Anthony Gaston, age 52, born in Lithuania and wife Ann, age 46, born in Lithuania.

I had saved this census record, but wasn’t all that sure that this was my grandfather (since in 1930, according to my mother he was living in Athol, MA).

It wasn’t until I began to transcribe records and look at neighbors that I realized both men were living with an Anthony Gaston…  With a bit of research I confirmed that this was the same Anthony Gaston and thus concluded that the draft registration and 1930 census record were that of my ancestors!

Anyway…..There are some great free forms to use as a transcription aid prepared by Gary Minder :  (he asks for a $10 donation if you find his tools useful).

I also find it helpful and interesting to review the enumerator instructions for each census year.  It will give you a better understanding of the data that they collected – for example the reasons why your ancestors occupation may have been recorded differently in various census years.  IPUMS USA has posted these instructions:

If you are just beginning your family research, and you are new to census records, it may also be helpful to explore some of the information that NARA has posted on census records

Happy Hunting!  and If you are an expert on the voting laws on any particular state and/or find some links on the topic, please share.


One response to this post.

  1. I have a question about info on census….1870 C. Fleming Co., Fox Springs….my 2xggf John M Davis…marked for him is column 19 = Constitutional Relations = Male citizens of U.S., of 21 yrs. of age & upwards, whose right to vote is denied or abridged on the grounds other than rebellion or other crimes. Does anyone know what this is implying? What are grounds other than?



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