Law and Democracy in Latin America

«Democracy, Law and Comparative Politics

History of the Right to Vote in the United States


This "Overview" is a way to reflect on, review and appreciate how the right to vote has been extended over the last two hundred and twenty years to almost every person over eighteen years of age -- an amazing extension of representative democracy. Democracy means, literally, government by the people. A system of government is called 'democratic' if the people have a direct say in how they are governed. Representative democracy is a particular type of democracy in which the people authorize others to govern on their behalf, through a voting process of some kind. Elections are crucial in a system of representative democracy. Voting has been a subject of controversy throughout our country's history. During the colonial period and the early years of our nation, voting was generally restricted to white men who owned property. While the majority of white males were qualified to vote, other people such as women, blacks, American Indians and members of certain religious groups were not allowed to vote.

At the Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia, the Framers of the Constitution could not agree on who should be given the right to vote. As a result, the Constitution only states that members of the House of Representatives were to be elected by the people of each state who, under state law were eligible to vote for the lower house of their state legislature. The Constitution, therefore, left to each state government the power to decide who could vote. As a result, many of the early battles over the right to vote took place at the state level.

1776 to 1779
White men had the right to vote and take part in government, but usually had to meet certain qualifications, like owning property. Six state governments eliminated all property requirements and gave the right to vote to all white males over twenty-one years of age, rich or poor. At the same time, three other state governments increased the property requirements, limiting the right to vote. In some states, the right to vote included the requirement that a person belong to a particular religious group.

1812 to 1821
Six western states became part of the nation and gave the vote to all white males. During the same period, four of the older states that had property requirements abolished them.

1840 to 1847
Almost every state government had given all white males the right to vote. Only two states still had any significant property qualifications. Restrictions on voting by Catholics and non-Christians were eliminated. In a few states, even immigrants not yet naturalized were given the right to vote. The last state to change, North Carolina, abandoned the property test in 1856.

The First Women's Suffrage Convention was held. Out of it came the statement "It is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves the sacred right to the elective franchise."

Wyoming Territory grants suffrage to women in statewide contests.

The 15th Amendment was added to the Constitution just after the Civil War. It says:

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

The intent of this amendment was to give black males the right to vote. The Supreme Court left to the state governments the responsibility for protecting most of the basic rights of their citizens. Some state governments passed laws that made it almost impossible for black males to exercise their newly-won right. Some of the laws enacted were:

Poll Taxes
Required citizens to pay a tax before they could vote. Since most former slaves were very poor, they were unable to pay the tax. In a number of the states, poor white men were allowed to vote even when they could not pay the poll tax.
Literacy Tests
Required men to take tests to prove that they could read and write before they were allowed to vote.
Grandfather Clauses
These clauses limited the right to vote to people who were descendants of those who had previously had the right to vote. This obviously did not include former slaves.

People in favor of women's rights argued before the Supreme Court that the 14th Amendment to the Constitution gave women the right to vote. The Amendment says:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.

The Supreme Court denied their claim saying that being a citizen does not automatically give a person the right to vote and that it was not unconstitutional for states to deny the vote to women.

Wyoming joins the Union as the first state with voting rights for women.

Women have full voting rights in Utah, Colorado and Idaho.

Washington grants the vote to women.

California grants the vote to women.

Voting referendums giving women the right to vote are passed in Arizona, Kansas and Oregon.

Montana and Nevada grant voting rights to women.

Restrictive voting laws that were enacted by state governments were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, over forty-five years after the 15th Amendment had been passed. Many of the laws that limited the right of blacks to vote lasted even longer than that.

New York passed a State Constitutional referendum granting women the vote. Other states which granted women some form of voting, usually school board elections--North Dakota, Indiana, Vermont, Rhode Island, Michigan, Ohio, Nebraska and Arkansas. As women took on jobs left vacant by Conscription in World War I and contributed as volunteers to the war effort, the old slogans about "woman's place" came under scrutiny.

Michigan, Oklahoma and South Dakota pass referendums giving women the right to vote.

The 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting women the vote, was sent to the states for ratification.

The 19th Amendment was ratified. It says:

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.

Women had the right to vote!

The United States Congress passed legislation extending United States citizenship to all Indians born in the United States. American Indians had the right to vote!

The 24th Amendment was added to the Constitution prohibiting the use of poll taxes as a means of denying the right to vote in federal elections.

Congress passed the Voting Rights Act which gave additional protection for voting rights by authorizing the federal government to take over registration of voters in areas where state officials had regularly prevented blacks from registering to vote.

The Supreme Court ruled that the use of poll taxes in state elections was a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. Thus, by the mid-60s, great progress had been made in ensuring that blacks could enjoy the right to vote which had been guaranteed in the 15th Amendment to the Constitution almost a century earlier.

The 26th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified by the required number of states. It lowered the voting age to eighteen. It says:

The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.

The United States Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act. It took effect on January 1, 1995. This landmark voter registration law -- also known as motor voter -- requires states to allow citizens to apply to register to vote when they obtain or renew their driver's licenses, by mail and at designated government agencies, including those serving public assistance recipients and people with disabilities.

The long history of the right to vote has taught us that success is never guaranteed; reform which guarantees rights, breeds attempts at restrictions on those rights; action breeds reaction. The 1990s have produced an environment of profound public cynicism about government and politics. At the same time, all citizens seek responsive, efficient government to meet domestic needs crying for attention.

The VOTE is an emblem of our equality, the guarantee of our liberty! Long as it was in coming for most of us, the right to vote was so obviously right, necessary and inevitable, that we have forgotten the sacrifices it took to win. By exercising our right to vote, we pay homage to those amazingly brave individuals who struggled to win the vote for us.

Voting magnifies the voice of the individual citizen in government and politics! Let us all join together and celebrate this victory by VOTING in every election.