A Brief History of the Right To Vote

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With Election Day right around the corner, it’s as good a time as any to talk about voting and its history.

Suffrage — the right to vote — has a long and checkered history in America. For a long time in the nation’s history, such a freedom was refused to a significant proportion of the population, yet mechanisms were put in place that eventually allowed for suffrage to finally be rightfully extended to these once-ostracized groups.

Still, the history of the right to vote in this country is a lot more complex than what is often taught. While a complete account is far too extensive to tell here, many of the major points will be discussed.

The Early Years of Suffrage in America

While it is well-known that racial minorities and women did not initially have the right to vote, what is much lesser-known is that there used to be a time where not even every white male was allowed to vote. It used to be that white males did not attain suffrage if they did not own property. Having a property was critically important for societal status, especially in colonial times. This was why many white males would go into indentured servitude. In indentured servitude, one would contract with someone wealthy and do all sorts of work for them for a set amount of years. After the time of the contract’s expiration, the now-former indentured servant would then receive their own land.

It may be hard to fathom how so many people could still be prevented from voting. But Engerman and Sokoloff write that while colonies did start to allow the use of other assets in place of property for suffrage requirements, “In no colony, however, was there a serious challenge to the notion that suffrage should be restricted to property owners.”¹

Constitutional Flaws Regarding Suffrage

Even soon after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, white males without land to call their own were also denied suffrage. So few people did this apply to that, along with racial minorities and women being left out, only a meager 6% of the population could vote in the first presidential election in 1789.²

As impressive as it was to have even been created and despite the great deal of good that came out of it, the U.S. Constitution — like anything else created by human beings —obviously had its shortcomings. Apart from obvious things like the continuation of slavery — an issue which was mostly left alone by the Framers due to the inevitable tension that would arise — the lack of guarantees for suffrage was also a major issue. Minority and female suffrage actually were not explicitly denied in the Constitution. Rather, the issue was left to the states, which proceeded to deny those groups the right to vote.

Speaking of which, we now turn our attention there.

Black Suffrage

A series of three amendments aimed at redressing discrimination against racial minorities were ratified in a five-year period after the Civil War: the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. The 13th Amendment would officially outlaw slavery in its entirety and the 14th Amendment provided the Equal Protection Clause. The 15th Amendment is what would finally enforce states to provide free and previously-enslaved black citizens the right to vote in 1870 — just over 80 years after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.

But while the 15th Amendment was a significant step in the right direction, the battle over racial discrimination regarding suffrage wasn’t over. States, particularly in the South, found ways to circumvent the law to effectively deny suffrage without actually taking the right away. Such laws included:

  • Literacy tests: In order to vote in many places, one had to exhibit a certain level of capability in literacy. This disproportionately affected black voters, as many institutional factors still greatly hindered them from becoming educated. Many black voters would be prohibited from casting a ballot as a result.
  • Poll taxes: Many voting places also required a fee in order to vote. This also disproportionately affected black voters, as they tended to be much poorer than their white counterparts. It would not be until the ratification of the 24th Amendment in 1964 — during the thick of the Civil Rights movement — that poll taxes would be completely abolished.
  • Grandfather clauses: One may wonder how poor whites were able to vote due to poll taxes also affecting them. States found a way around this through grandfather clauses. These clauses had a provision that a voter would be exempt from requirements such as literacy tests or poll taxes if they were born prior 1866 or 1867, and their descendants would be as well. Since the 15th Amendment was not ratified until 1870, grandfather clauses did not apply to black voters.³
  • White primaries: These primaries were a way for the Southern states to prevent black voters from participating in Democratic primaries. Due to the dominance of the Democratic party in the South, Democratic primaries were basically the general election since the Democratic primary winner would virtually always win in the general election.

These laws were part of the larger framework of Jim Crow segregation. (Jim Crow was not an actual person, but rather a racist caricature of a black man.) It wouldn’t be until the Civil Rights movements in the 1960s that Jim Crow truly started to be torn down. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned segregation in public places and discrimination in employment. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 would end many of these legal barriers that prevented blacks from voting.

Women’s Suffrage

The movement for women’s suffrage also faced a long road to their goal. The 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920, would finally ban barriers to voting on account of sex and gender, but the movement started well before then. The beginning of the movement is often traced back to the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton authored the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments. Among its many resolutions was women’s right to vote. (Stanton and the Convention’s other organizers — Lucretia Mott, Mary M’Clintock, Martha Coffin Wright, and Jane Hunt — were also active in the abolitionist movement against slavery).⁴

Perhaps the most famous of female suffragists was Susan B. Anthony. Anthony was highly active in politics, including the abolitionist movement, education reform, labor, and temperance⁵ (which called for limitations on the sale and consumption of alcohol, or in some cases an outright ban). She also managed to get herself registered to vote, pointing to the 14th Amendment to make her case that it was her right. Still, Anthony was eventually arrested when she, along with many other women, cast a ballot in the 1872 election. The arrest and subsequent trial took the national spotlight as newspapers extensively covered the case. In the end, however, Anthony was declared guilty of violating New York state law prohibiting women from voting, and Justice Ward Hunt ruled that female suffrage was not a constitutional right.⁶

Nevertheless, the women’s suffrage movement would continue. The two major suffrage groups of the era, the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), would join forces in 1890 to form the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA). NAWSA, led by Carrie Chapman Catt, would make significant gains in the early 20th century, as various states would start passing legislation that explicitly granted women the right to vote.⁷ It all culminated in 1920, when the 19th Amendment was finally ratified to cement women’s suffrage throughout the country.

Changing the Minimum Voting Age to 18 Years Old

It wasn’t always the case that the minimum vote age was 18 years old. In fact, it is a relatively recent change. Although states were allowed to lower the limit, the minimum age to vote had been set to 21 years old since at least the passage of the 14th Amendment.⁸

While the 26th Amendment that enforced the change to 18 years old for all the states was ratified in 1971, the movement towards decreasing the minimum voting age took hold roughly three decades before. America instituted a draft when it entered World War II, in which then-President Franklin Roosevelt lowered the minimum age for the draft to 18 years old when it had historically been 21 that was the cut-off. The slogan “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote” became a popular rallying cry, and a few states would respond by lowering the voting age.⁹

Eventually, Congress would pass an amendment to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to lower the minimum voting age in federal, state, and local elections. Yet the provision would find itself in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. In the 1970 case Oregon v. Mitchell, there was division among the court as to where Congress had the power to lower the minimum voting age. Some justices argued that Congress only had the power to lower the age for federal elections but not state or local elections, while others argued Congress didn’t even have that much power. The eventual verdict fell in favor of the first group of justices, but much of the public was dissatisfied with the result.⁹ A push for a constitutional amendment to lower the minimum age uniformly across all levels of election ensued, and it rapidly succeeded. The 26th Amendment would be ratified in record-breaking time, taking effect in time for the 1972 elections.¹⁰

Voting Rights Today

There are still some debates and controversies surrounding voting rights today, however. This is especially the case regarding racial minorities, and a couple of major debates regard voter ID laws and gerrymandering. Many people argue that strict voter identification laws disproportionately affect blacks and Hispanics because they are often less able to acquire some of those forms of ID (and thus cannot vote as much), while others argue that these laws are necessary to ensure against voter fraud. Gerrymandering, both racial and partisan, is still salient as cases regarding unfair redrawings of district boundaries are taken to court. Groups targeted by gerrymandering have their voting capabilities limited, even though they aren’t having their right explicitly taken away.

Thus, the debates on having constitutionally-mandated suffrage are long over, but they have shifted fronts. Controversies still swirl around some legislation and governmental actions based on whether they effectively dilute or prevent voting rights from being exercised. And many of these controversies and debates are unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.

  1. Stanley L. Engerman and Kenneth L. Sokoloff. 2005. “The Evolution of Suffrage Institutions in the New World.” Page 7. http://economics.yale.edu/sites/default/files/files/Workshops-Seminars/Economic-History/sokoloff-050406.pdf (accessed October 17, 2018).
  2. The Charters of Freedom. “Expansion of Rights and Liberties — The Right of Suffrage.” https://web.archive.org/web/20160706144856/http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/charters_of_freedom_13.html (accessed October 17, 2018).
  3. U.S. Legal. “Grandfather Clauses, Literacy Tests, and the White Primary.” https://civilrights.uslegal.com/voting-rights/grandfather-clauses-literacy-tests-and-the-white-primary/ (accessed October 17, 2018).
  4. History. “Seneca Falls Convention.” https://www.history.com/topics/womens-rights/seneca-falls-convention (accessed October 17, 2018).
  5. Susan B. Anthony House. “Her Story.” http://susanbanthonyhouse.org/her-story/biography.php (accessed October 17, 2018).
  6. Ann D. Gordon. Federal Judicial Center. https://www.fjc.gov/sites/default/files/trials/susanbanthony.pdf#page=8 (accessed October 17, 2018).
  7. History. “19th Amendment.” https://www.history.com/topics/womens-history/19th-amendment-1 (accessed October 17, 2018).
  8. Constitution Center. “Amendment XXVI — The United State Constitution.” https://constitutioncenter.org/interactive-constitution/amendments/amendment-xxvi (accessed October 17, 2018).
  9. History. “26th Amendment.” https://www.history.com/topics/united-states-constitution/the-26th-amendment (accessed October 18, 2018).
  10. U.S. House of Representatives. “Historical Highlights: The 26th Amendment.” https://history.house.gov/HistoricalHighlight/Detail/37022 (accessed October 18, 2018).

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