Politics are ugly right now. The campaigning and, well, you know what I’m talking about. It makes it hard to get excited about voting in a vacuum. But it’s really extraordinary that every American citizen over the age of 18 is entitled to the right to vote (with certain exceptions…). I love my right to vote. Because we are lucky to be able to do it.
OK, I know we haven’t all always been able to vote, but is it really that big a deal?
Yes. Such a big deal. The right to vote for representatives to make decisions on our behalf and in the interests of our communities is why we declared our independence from England. Taxation without representation was about the representation.
In fact, it’s such a big deal that “the right to vote” is the right that appears most often in the text of the Constitution). Five times! It probably means something that the right to vote is singled out more often than any other. And every time, it’s about expanding the right to vote to more people.
- Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment imposes a penalty upon states that deny or abridge “the right to vote at any [federal or state] election … to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, … except for participation in rebellion, or other crime”;
- The Fifteenth Amendment states that “[t]he right of citizens of the United States to vote” can’t be abridged by race;
- The Nineteenth Amendment says that the same right can’t be abridged by sex;
- The Twenty-Fourth Amendment says that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote” in federal elections can’t be blocked by a poll tax; and
- The Twenty-Sixth Amendment protects “[t]he right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote.”
It tells a story, right?
OK, that tells quite a story. But why are you so excited about this?
Because not everyone could vote when we founded the country (really, not by a longshot), and we spent the next 200+ years expanding the right and making it more accessible. And because it’s still a big deal to be able to vote. Just look at what happens in countries where they can’t vote. And where the right is still new.
So how did we start voting in the United States?
Well, before the Revolution, every town and city and settlement voted for representatives to lead it. Nearly entirely limited to white, Protestant, land-owning men, this set the scene. The first representative assembly in English America began in Jamestown’s church on July 30, 1619, and the first election happened just after the colonists had landed in Jamestown in 1607. But these early American elected officials determined nearly everything about living in the colonies that wasn’t controlled by the Crown. Which controlled everything else. Like who the governor of the colony was And like taxation. Thus, Revolution.
Yes, but after the Revolution…
I’m getting to that. At the beginning, states determined who was eligible to vote in their elections. And nearly every state limited the right to vote to white, Protestant, land-owning men. Heck – slaves were counted as 3/5’s of a single person in our national census, which may be the actual opposite of a citizen with the right to vote. Which meant that when George Washington was elected president in 1789, only 6% of the U.S. population was even eligible to vote.
That’s not going to work for America.
And it didn’t. But it took a while to get to where we are now. Which is still not full enfranchisement.
So how did it start?
Badly. Congress passed The Naturalization Act in 1790 to bar people of Asian descent from becoming naturalized citizens, saying that only “free white” immigrants are eligible to become citizens, which comes with it the possibility of voting. Then, the few states that allowed women to vote started denying women that right – New York in 1777, Massachusetts in 1780, New Hampshire in 1784, and the rest of the states, except New Jersey, in 1787 (at the Constitutional Convention), and then in New Jersey in 1807. And then they were gone.
Any good news?
In 1792, New Hampshire became the first state to eliminate property requirements for voting, so that nearly all white men were now eligible to vote. In 1828, Maryland became the last state to end religious restrictions on voting when it passed a law allowing Jews to vote, so now, in every state, white men could not be denied the vote on the basis of religion. And in 1856, North Carolina eliminated its property requirements for voting, so now the right to vote was extended to all white men.
So, in 1856, all white men could vote. Yay?
But that is not actually enough.
Not nearly. Shall we look at enfranchisement by group?
Yes, please. African Americans.
So, African Americans were not even counted as people, much less as citizens, at the founding of the country. And then, in 1857, the Supreme Court held in Dred Scott v. Sandford that “a black man has no rights a white man is bound to respect,” which further deprived African Americans of the right to citizenship.
African Americans were granted citizenship in 1866 but didn’t receive the right to vote until passage of the 15th Amendment. That Amendment guaranteed the right to vote to all male citizens regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
And you may remember that we fought a civil war, losing over 620,000 American soldiers, to free the slaves and give them the right to vote. It was hard to bring this dream of a fairer and more representative government into reality.
Problem solved, right? Sadly, no: in 1940, only 3% of eligible African Americans in the south were registered to vote because of restrictions like poll taxes, grandfather clauses, and literacy tests. More on that later.
Wow. How about women?
Well, as we noted above, women had lost the right to vote in every state by 1807. The Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 was the first women’s right convention, and there they agreed to fight for women’s suffrage. During the Civil War, suffragists focused on the war effort, but they argued that women should receive the vote along with the recently freed slaves.
Unfortunately, while the Wyoming Territory granted suffrage to women in 1869 and the Utah Territory in 1870, the 15th Amendment granted suffrage to former male African-American slaves, but not women.
Women appeared before Congress, arguing at state conventions and legislatures, lecturing, writing, marching, lobbying, and protesting for their right to vote. They went to prison and went on hunger strikes. Susan B. Anthony was even put on trial for voting unlawfully in 1872. They imagined a country in which women’s voices were heard in government and that our country took their needs and ideas and thoughts seriously. So they could help to create a better government and better America. And they brought it into being.
And, eventually, with the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, the right to vote was extended to all citizens regardless of gender.
Only 131 years after the founding of the country.
What about people of Asian descent? Was it easier for them to vote?
So very no. People of Asian descent received the right to vote even later, based on their country of origin. Here’re just a few snippets from our troubled history.
Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which placed restrictions and quotas on Chinese immigration and legally excluded Chinese persons from citizenship and voting. It was not repealed until 1943 which is when Chinese people became eligible for naturalization.
In 1922, the Supreme Court held that persons of Japanese heritage are ineligible to become naturalized citizens because they are insufficiently white in Takao Ozawa v. United States. In 1923, they ruled that people of Indian descent can’t be legally recognized as “white,” so they are also ineligible for citizenship. That means that after enfranchisement of African Americans and women, the Court is still finding that people are not white enough to be Americans.
In 1923, Congress barred Filipinos from becoming U.S. citizenship unless they first served three years in the U.S. Navy. It was not until 1946 that they received the right to become naturalized citizens and vote.
And it wasn’t until 1952 that the McCarran-Walter Act offered the right to citizenship of first-generation Japanese Americans. It makes a lot more sense that Japanese-Americans were relocated to internment camps in America during World War II when you know that Japanese immigrants were ineligible to become citizens, right?
That is nuts. Did Latinos have similar problems getting the right to vote?
In 1848, what became the states of Arizona, California, New Mexico, Texas, and Nevada became part of U.S. territory in the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. All Mexican people within those territories were declared U.S. citizens in the treaty, but they were not given the right to vote because of the simultaneous passage of English proficiency, literacy, and property requirements. And with voter intimidation and violence added to those requirements, while they could technically vote, it was nearly impossible for them to exercise that right.
As time went on, literacy tests and language requirements became the primary method of preventing Latinos from voting. And once those tests were outlawed by the Voting Rights Act amendments in 1975, rules requiring voter IDs and other rules have taken over. Again, more on this below.
But then everyone could vote.
Actually, not at all. Native Americans did not have the right to vote in every state until 1962. In 1831, the Supreme Court held that “Indians” were a “domestic dependent nation,” which meant that Native American’s were not U.S. citizens unless they renounced their tribal affiliation.
In 1876, the Supreme Court held that Native Americans are not citizens as defined by the 14th Amendment, and so they are not allowed to vote in elections.
Then, in 1906, the Burke Act explicitly offered citizenship to Native Americans if they left their reservations and privately farmed their land. And in 1916, Native Americans who served in World War I were granted U.S. Citizenship, which came with it the right to vote.
It wasn’t until June 2, 1924, that Congress granted citizenship to all Native Americans born in the U.S. with the Snyder Act. But citizenship doesn’t get them a right to vote because voting rights are controlled by state law. So it took over forty years for Native Americans to vote in every state. It wasn’t until 1956 that Utah finally made Native Americans eligible to vote. And it wasn’t until 1962 that New Mexico stopped barring Native Americans from voting – denying Native Americans the right to vote had actually been in their Constitution. And Native American voter turnout is still low…
1962? That’s ridiculous.
But, now everyone can vote?
Well, everyone 21 and over can vote. But it wasn’t until the 26th Amendment to the Constitution in 1971 that the national voting age was set to 18. It was inspired by the fact that young men were drafted into the military to serve our country at 18 years old – how could they be required to serve and die for a country, and a President, that they had no voice in electing? No longer.
That means we can all vote now. Yay!
Actually, it really doesn’t. In 1974, the Supreme Court held in Richardson v. Ramirez that states can deny convicted felons the right to vote. And so, now, many states do. That means that right now, about 4.4 million Americans can’t vote for the rest of their lives, even though they have already served their time.
The Brennan Center has created an interactive map showing the voting rights of felons and people currently serving sentences in prison. It is filled with all the details you need (this is just a photo – the actual map is so much better).
OK, so that’s a problem, but now, everyone over 18 can vote, right?
Actually, the right to vote doesn’t mean much if you can’t actually vote in reality. Throughout the history of our country, people who have been voting for years or generations did their best to stop new voters from exercising their hard-won right to vote. With poll taxes, literacy tests, language requirements, fraud, and intimidation, Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and other groups were kept from the voting booths.
When did that start?
It started immediately after enfranchisement of African Americans, but these restrictions affected all new voters, depending on when they received suffrage.
Poll taxes and literacy tests specifically designed to prevent African American from voting were introduced in Southern states beginning in 1889 and 1890. Poll taxes established a fee to vote to prevent lower income citizens from voting. Literacy tests were designed to exclude the under educated from voting. Georgia’s poll tax was found constitutional in 1937 by the Supreme Court in Breedlove v. Suttles, so they were not ended until the ratification of the 24th Amendment in 1964. And literacy tests weren’t specifically outlawed until 1975.
Louisiana implemented the first grandfather clause in its election law in 1896, stating that no male citizen whose grandparents couldn’t vote could vote. Subtle, right? Grandfather clauses were not found unconstitutional until 1915, in the Supreme Court case of Guinn v. United States.
But while these laws were in effect, people were protesting them, lobbying against them, and pushing through them to vote, even when their lives were put in danger. They imagined a government in which the right to vote meant people could vote, so people came from all over the country to protect and educated threatened voters, marching on Washington to make sure their voices were heard. And they got many of these laws overturned, either individually or via passage of the Voting Rights Act.
But I thought the Voting Rights Act stopped all of these kinds of laws?
It slowed them down. For a time. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made illegal any discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, gender, or religion in voting, public areas, the workplace, and schools.
And, even more importantly, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited any election rule that denied citizens the right to vote on the basis of race and requires jurisdictions that have a history of voter discrimination to submit changes to their election laws to the federal government for approval before they go into effect. This was designed to stop problematic voting restrictions from being passed before elections, where they could determine the result, before being found unconstitutional.
And, in 1975, the Voting Rights Act was extended again, this time with new amendments permanently banning literacy tests and requiring that people who do not speak English receive assistance to enable them to vote. And the U.S. Department of Justice worked hard to ensure that new voting laws did not unconstitutionally and unlawfully restrict our right to vote.
So, does the Voting Rights Act fix everything?
Sadly, no. As the Brennan Center notes, “[o]n June 25, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, removing a critical tool to combat racial discrimination in voting. Under Section 5 of the landmark civil rights law, jurisdictions with a history of discrimination must seek pre-approval of changes in voting rules that could affect minorities. This process, known as “preclearance,” blocks discrimination before it occurs. In Shelby County v. Holder, the Court invalidated Section 4 — which determines the states and localities covered by Section 5 — arguing that current conditions require a new coverage formula.”
And, unfortunately, without the pre-clearance section of the Voting Rights Act that prevents a problematic law from going into effect before it is challenged, it’s a lot less effective. Since 2013, more and more laws have been passed by states that make it much harder for people to vote.
Just one issue, the requirement of a current government-issued ID to vote, impacts over 16 million registered voters. Imagine how many unregistered, but eligible, voters also don’t have a government I.D. That is a massive restriction of the right to vote in America…
So how can we put the Voting Rights Act back into effect?
It’s easy (sort of): Congress has to pass it. Lots of people are working on it. You can too.
Others are pushing for automatic and permanent voter registration, like was just passed in Oregon.
Voting is the easiest and one of the best ways to ImagineGov. We need to make sure it’s available to everyone.
What else have we done to make it easier to vote?
Well, the Americans with Disability Act, passed in 1990, ensured that election workers and polling sites offered services to ensure that all people with disabilities could vote. In 1993, the National Voter Registration Act (sometimes called the Motor Voter Law) required that states allow mail-in registration and make it easy for people to register to vote at DMVs and other state agencies. There’s more, but you get the picture.
What’s the upshot?
The American “right to vote” is actually a hard-won right that we are still working on today. Unless we ensure that every U.S. citizen has the right to vote and is actually able to vote, then we’re not really living up to our vision of ourselves as a democratic nation. But we can do it – we’ve been extending voting rights since our founding – so we’ve got lots of practice. So let’s imagine a more representative and fairer government together. Because it really is a big deal.