Timeline: A history of voting rights in America

voting-machine

(MEDIA GENERAL) It’s been a rough election cycle, to say the least. America’s faith in both candidates and the electoral system is seemingly at an all-time low. In actuality, voting has always been a bit of a touchy subject in the U.S.

In fact, the process as we know it today has only existed for a few decades. 

It has taken us 240 years (and counting), not to mention the hard work of millions of Americans throughout history, to get where we are today. That’s why, in the midst of this controversial, incredibly close election, it’s important to recognize the true value of each and every vote cast.

1777-1788: The Article of Confederation and the Constitution 

"Join or Die" by Benjamin Franklin. (WikiCommons)
“Join or Die” by Benjamin Franklin.

The Articles of Confederation, which were the first set of laws for the 13 original states, were written and ratified with urgency by the Second Continental Congress during the Revolutionary War.

At the time, the authors were more focused on defining the United States of America as an independent nation, so they didn’t really outline much on the actual running of the country leaving most of the specifics up to the states. Long story short—it didn’t work very well. 

Realizing that the Articles of Confederation were not detailed enough to actually run a nation, the Founding Fathers came together to pen a new supreme law of the land: the Constitution.

While it was much more descriptive than the Articles, we’ve spent the last 200-or-so years trying to make sense of it—especially when it comes to voting laws, which weren’t really outlined at all.

Constitution of the United States, National Archives and Record Administration
Constitution of the United States (National Archives and Record Administration)

Leaving it up to the states to determine whom could and could not vote, most states only allowed white, property-owning males to cast a ballot.

However, one provision the original document does lay out is the abolishment of “religious tests” that had kept Jews, Catholics and Quakers from voting up to this point.

Freed slaves and non-property-owning white men and non-white property owners could vote in a few states.

For a short time, women could vote in New Jersey—if they could meet the property requirement, of course. (This was revoked in 1807.)

Voting rights remained this way until the post-Civil War era when slavery was abolished—and even then, nearly 100 years later, it wasn’t much more than a formality.  

1792-1856: Jacksonian Democracy

As one might assume, the first group of Americans to gain voting rights in America were white menspecifically working-class and poor white men that did not own property.

The Second Party System gained momentum slowly, state-by-state, in response to the corruption of the educated and wealthy Whig Party that eventually ushered in a new era of American politics, symbolized by President Andrew Jackson.

By Thomas Sully - http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/art/resources/graphic/xlarge/32_00018.jpg, Public Domain, Link
Painting by Thomas Sully

In many ways, Jacksonian Democracy was very successful—namely, it expanded the public’s participation in government. (But if you asked the Native Americans torn from their lands by an ever-expanding nation and the slaves brought from Africa and the Caribbean to develop it, they might feel differently.)

Tenants of Jacksonian Democracy, like Manifest Destiny and white supremacy, both widely accepted ideas at the time, made the period equally digressive. Not to mention, the strong emphasis on limited federal government and states’ rights could also be blamed for the Nullification Crisis in the 1830s and later the Civil War.

1868-1870: The 15th Amendment and the Reconstruction Era

The Poll tax in the United States from 1868–1966 by state. The poll tax in pre-Civil War times is not included, as it was a quite different policy despite bearing the same name. (Credit: SnowFire)

The first federal change in voting rights was not a popular one.

Following the 13th Amendment (abolishing slavery) and the 14th Amendment (allowing former slaves to become American citizens), the 15th Amendment mandated that U.S. citizens could no longer be denied the right to vote based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

It was bitterly contested by the Southern states following the Civil War, who were required to ratify it in order to receive representation in Congress.

While it did not increase the number of black voters and explicitly excluded Native Americans, states could now count black men equally to white men when determining their number of representatives in the House of Representatives and Electoral College, rather than the smaller portion mandated by the Three-Fifths Compromise.

Office of the Freedmen's Bureau, Memphis, Tennessee. (1866) From Harper's weekly : a journal of civilization. (New York: Harper' s Weekly Co., 1857-1916)
Office of the Freedmen’s Bureau, Memphis, Tennessee. (1866) From Harper’s weekly : a journal of civilization. (New York: Harper’ s Weekly Co., 1857-1916)

This was a pretty big deal for the South, considering that African-Americans accounted for at least 40-percent of the population in 6 states at that time.

Technically, this should have guaranteed African-American men the ability to vote—but in most Southern states, these new laws were was mostly a formality.

Other discriminatory laws, poll taxes, literacy tests (along with grandfather clauses that exempted white, male voters) and violent intimidation all but completely suppressed black participation in elections until the 1960s.

1920: The 19th Amendment and Women’s Suffrage

Lady Liberty, wearing a cape labeled "Votes for Women," stands astride the states (colored white) that had adopted suffrage. A poem by Alice Duer Miller is printed beneath.
Lady Liberty, wearing a cape labeled “Votes for Women,” stands astride the states (colored white) that had adopted suffrage. A poem by Alice Duer Miller is printed beneath.

The women’s suffrage movement began alongside that of poor whites and African-American men, but it took decades longer to achieve.

Instead of a sweeping national mandate like the 15th Amendment. voting rights for women spread slowly across the nation—from West to East—as settlers populated the frontier and penned new laws that were more inclusive of women.

There were many attempts throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s to amend the Constitution to include universal women’s suffrage, a period known as “the doldrums,” but nothing seemed to stick.

In fact, when Congress was working to ratify the 15th Amendment, suffragettes like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony refused to endorse it because it did not include women.

Members of the National American Women Suffrage Association, seeking the right to vote in elections, march down Pennsylvania Avenue NW in Washington, D.C., in the United States on March 3, 1913.
Members of the National American Women Suffrage Association, seeking the right to vote in elections, march down Pennsylvania Avenue NW in Washington, D.C., in the United States on March 3, 1913.

Written by Sen. Aaron A. Sargent (R-Calif.) after meeting Susan B. Anthony on a train in 1878, the 19th Amendment, which is completely identical to the 15th except that it includes women, was brought to the Senate many times to no avail.

It finally progressed in 1918 after President Woodrow Wilson called two special sessions in the House of Representatives to move the legislation through.

Then, because 36 state legislatures must ratify an amendment before it can officially be added to the Constitution, it didn’t officially pass until August 18, 1920, when the Tennessee legislature narrowly approved it, nearly two years later.

1924: Indian Citizenship Act

 U.S. President Calvin Coolidge with four Osage Indians after Coolidge signed the bill granting Indians full citizenship.

U.S. President Calvin Coolidge with four Osage Indians after Coolidge signed the bill granting Indians full citizenship.

The Indian Citizenship Act, proposed by Rep. Homer P. Snyder (R-N.Y.) in 1924, aimed to redefine the language of the 14th Amendment to include Native Americans.

While the law states that anyone “born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof” is eligible for full citizenship and subsequent rights, Native Americans were predominantly excluded from it.

Between the Civil War and World War I, Native Americans were forced to give up their tribal affiliations or join the military in order to vote.

The new law, signed into law by President Calvin Coolidge after World War I, granted full U.S. citizenship to nearly 300,000 indigenous people (about a third of the native population at the time).

1961: The President’s Neighbors 

washington_dc_metropolitan_map
Map of Washington, D.C.

That’s right, until 1961 residents in the District of Columbia could not vote in presidential elections.

That’s because, after its initial founding in 1790, its population was not large enough for representation as outlined in the Constitution.

Like the House of Representatives, a state’s number of delegates is traditionally determined by population.

As laid out in the 23th Amendment, DC is allowed as many electors as if it were a real state, but no more than America’s least-populated state—and that’s Wyoming, which only has three.

It’s about as unfair as it sounds, considering that there are nearly 100,000 more people living in the 68.34-square-mile District than in the entire state of Wyoming.

1962-65: The Civil Rights Movement

Photo of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. being arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, for “loitering” in 1958.

While African-Americans technically gained the right to vote after the Civil War, only a small percentage of southern African-Americans performed their civic duty until the 1960s—after the 24th Amendment (1962) and the Civil Rights Act of 1965 were passed.

In the decades following the Civil War, Southern states used tactics like literacy tests, property requirements, poll taxes, unfair criminal charges and even physical violence to keep black voters away from the polls.

Led by Martin Luther King, Jr., African-Americans began peacefully protesting these injustices with initiatives like voter registration drives and marches in Southern cities like Selma, Alabama, but their advances were not welcomed.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1964 Civil Rights Act as Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, look on.
President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1964 Civil Rights Act as Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, look on.

The Civil Rights Act, which was called “the single most effective piece of civil rights legislation ever passed by Congress,” by the U.S. Department of Justice, prohibits state and local governments from creating any kind of discriminatory voting laws that impede minority voters.

Since it’s original passage, the law has been amended five times to broaden its scope of protections.

One recent addition was the requirement for districts with high non-English-speaking minority populations to provide bilingual ballots and voting materials.

1971: “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote”

Now one of the most coveted demographics in the presidential race, young voters were once a quieter voice in the scope of American politics.

Since President Franklin D. Roosevelt lowered the age men could be drafted into the military from 21 to 18 during World War II, people debated lowering the minimum voting age, but effective voter legislation reflecting it was not passed nationally until after the long, costly Vietnam War.

Protesters carry signs and act out a “Saigon Puppet” demonstration in front of a Wichita City Building.

At this time, many young people as well as opponents of the Vietnam War began to call out the hypocrisy of the American government for forcing 18 to 21-year-old boys to enter the draft but deny their right to vote.

With a unanimous vote in the Senate, an overwhelmingly favorable vote in the House and only a three-month state ratification period (the shortest in American history), the 26th Amendment was signed into law by President Richard Nixon in July 1971, lowering the minimum voting age for federal, state and local elections to 18.

In a speech to a host of newly eligible voters after the amendment passed, Nixon poignantly explained the importance of young voters in America:

“The reason I believe that your generation, the 11 million new voters, will do so much for America at home is that you will infuse into this nation some idealism, some courage, some stamina, some high moral purpose, that this country always needs.”

President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama walk in the inaugural parade on Pennsylvania Avenue on January 21, 2013. (Credit: White House photo office)

While turnout declined among young voters in subsequent decades, it rebounded in 1992 when Bill Clinton was elected. Young voters also helped Barack Obama achieve a decisive victory in both 2008 and 2012.

The impact young voters will have on this year’s election is unclear. Many experts believe the rough campaign cycle may lead to disillusionment that will translate into low turnout amongst millennial voters.

But if the past has taught us anything, it’s that young Americans are both unpredictable and revolutionary.

1986: Americans Abroad

While the number of Americans living or serving in the military outside the US are a relatively small percentage of the electorate, their voices remain vital to the process.

U.S. presidential election popular vote totals as a percentage of the total U.S. population. Note the surge in 1828 after the extension of suffrage to non-property-owning white men, the drop from 1890–1910 when Southern states disenfranchised most African Americans and many poor whites, and another surge in 1920 following the extension of suffrage to women. (Credit: CircleAdrian)

In order to ensure that servicemen and ex-pats around the world could still have a say in presidential elections, the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act was written and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1986.

The law ensures that members of the seven Uniformed Services, U.S. Merchant Marine, eligible family members, U.S. citizens employed by the federal government residing outside the U.S., and other private U.S. citizens residing outside the United States can vote in federal, state and local elections via absentee ballot.

1993-Present: Are Felons the Next Frontier? 

While the development of voting legislation in America has slowed somewhat in recent years, there have been some landmark regulations that prove there’s always room for improvement when it comes to voting.

The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (also known as the Motor Voter Act), mandated that citizens be offered a chance to register to vote when renewing their driver’s license.

A man counts a controversial Palm Beach County punch card ballot. (Mark T. Foley/State Library and Archives of Florida)

The Help America Vote Act was passed in 2002 to replace punch card and lever-based voting systems after 2 million votes were deemed ineligible for registered multiple or no choices when they were run through vote-counting machines — making for one the of the most contested elections in modern time.

Today, advocacy groups and public officials are making strides to improve accessibility to homeless voters and with those with physical disabilities.

During his term in office, President Barack Obama has also started a movement to restore voting rights to select non-violent felons.

“If folks have served their time, and they’ve re-entered society, they should be able to vote,” he said in landmark speech at the 2015 NAACP Convention in Philadelphia.

According to Slate, more than 4 million Americans have lost their right to vote due to a felony conviction but are not longer in prison.

Only time will tell if felons will become the subject of future voter legislation — but if history has taught us anything, it might take a long time to achieve it.

But for those who can vote, now is the time. Don’t let such a hard-fought prize go to waste!

 

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