Personalising electoral roll searches: surprises found and caution needed


Shelley over at Twigs of Yore blog has recently posted about Ancestry’s expanded Australian electoral rolls. Her points made me sit up and think, because frankly I’ve not bothered to look for the people for whom I “know” the details (including myself). This has been a bit silly given I’ve posted about the great uses of electoral rolls in relation to the street where I grew up here and here, though for those posts I was using Findmypast and World Vital Records.

We do tend to think that our ancestors’ electoral details are correct…even if we know we might not be so attentive ourselves. Why do we expect something different from our ancestors? The joy of looking at the microfilms of the original Queensland rolls, for example, is that they are annotated when someone’s residence is challenged, or they move to another electorate or die.

Personalising my search revealed some interesting anomalies likely to cause future descendants and family historians to scratch their hands in puzzlement.

Example 1:

My parents-in-law appear in rural Victoria in 1949, rural NSW in 1954 then reappear in 1980 in Rockhampton Queensland. In another 50 or 100 years will anyone know where those missing years were spent?

Even if they know the family were in Papua New Guinea, they won’t find them in the Genealogical index to Australians and other expatriates in Papua New Guinea 1888-1975 because I’ve been unable to find any reference there, even though I know there were BDM notices in the papers. Which reminds me: I want to suggest to the Trove people that the Post Courier newspaper be digitised given just how many Australians had links there.

Nor will they know that my mother-in-law was a teacher almost all her life, because on the early rolls her occupation is shown as “home duties” and in the 1980 roll she was a teacher’s aide (being then largely in retirement).

Example 2:

My father lived on the same block of land all his life, but soon after I was born the land was sub-divided and another house built. The electoral rolls continue to show my parents at my grandparents’ address more than five years after they’d moved into their own home.

My father’s occupation throughout his entire presence on the electoral rolls remains the same. While he remained with the Railways all his life, his actual job changed. Descendants in years to come will have no idea what he really did, or that his occupation (numbertaker, not undertaker) was actually quite hazardous.

Have you ever thought to change your occupation if your address remains unchanged? Would the Electoral Office even modify it if you asked?

Example 3:

My own presence on the roll, like that of my husband and in-laws is delayed by living in Papua New Guinea for a number of years. If descendants don’t get my birth or marriage certificate they are likely to think I’m much younger than I am…perhaps not a bad thing J

My husband’s bland “admin officer” occupation camouflages his real skills and work experience: much depends on what mind-set we’re in when we fill out the form. Do you descendants a favour, and give a precise title.

As with my mother-in-law, my occupation reflects a particular point of my life and disguises entirely that I was in paid employment most of my adult life. However, that might be remedied on later rolls because we’ve moved around a bit. I wonder what I put down when we’d just moved to Darwin? I just might have to visit the Darwin Electoral Office to look at the online rolls.

Perhaps these findings will give you food for thought too, and make you, and me, be a little less confident about some of the details we find on the electoral rolls, especially if they contradict other sources. This is one case where we should be looking to the future as well as the past… and yet another good reason for writing our family stories. Thanks Shelley for triggering off this train of thought!

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13 thoughts on “Personalising electoral roll searches: surprises found and caution needed

  1. A member of my extended family moved around so frequently for work and study that she only updated her electoral roll entry once in 15 years. She has completely destroyed my faith in the rolls. ;-)

    • Once every 15 years seems a bit cavalier….you can tell I’m a “bureaucrat” to use a much maligned word. Still I guess we’ll keep using the rolls for those for what they do contain.

  2. As one who has moved around a lot, I have to confess that you wouldn’t be able to trace me via the electoral rolls. It’s not something that springs to mind when you shift, even interstate and I think for most of my 35 year working life I was a public servant. The latter gives no indication of the diversity of jobs I have had. When we move again next year, I promise to do better!

    • Yes, those generic titles like “admin” or “public servant” or “university employee” are really not helpful for our descendants….but I reckon you’ll leave a lot of other traces in the records.

  3. Enjoyed your post. My parents’ listed occupations will not truly reflect when/what they actually did. Because they moved either just before or just have each electoral roll, Dad’s jobs are all about 4 yrs behind. Because my mother stayed in the same house for over 20 years, her 1980 occupation teacher finished in 1975, but I imagine it would still be teacher until she moved in 1995, totally missing her 20 years as a retail owner.

  4. An interesting post. Scottish electoral rolls are very scanty on information and do not include occupation, so they can only confirm that a person was living at a certain address in a certain year. Not a huge help to family historians!

  5. Very good point! I know someone who deliberately failed to update her electoral details for quite a number of years because she had moved from a marginal electorate to a safe seat.
    I think it pays to remember that almost any data set we use was an administrative data collection, not designed for the purposes we are putting it to.

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