Voting Rights Throughout United States History

Voting Rights Throughout United States History

Voting rights in the United States have not always been equally accessible. African Americans and women of all ethnicities have fought, and continue to fight, especially hard to have their voices heard.




Voter Registration Drive at the 1973 Black Expo

Voting largely left out nonwhite men and women, regardless of color, for much of American history. This voter registration drive at the Black Expo in Chicago, Illinois, took place just eight years after the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed in 1973.

Photograph from John White/U.S. National Archives/Alamy Images
Voting largely left out nonwhite men and women, regardless of color, for much of American history. This voter registration drive at the Black Expo in Chicago, Illinois, took place just eight years after the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed in 1973.
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The rules for voting in the United States have changed over the years. While states have always determined requirements for voting throughout American history, the federal government has taken several actions that have changed those requirements. This is the result of many people campaigning for decades to make the voting process more just and equal.

Today, in order to vote people must be U.S. citizens, be 18 years of age or older, and be residents of the state in which they vote. However, this was not always the case.

Voting After The American Revolution

Following the American Revolution, the new country transitioned from being under British rule to developing its own government. After trying and failing to use the Articles of Confederation, the country adopted the U.S. Constitution in 1787. According to Article 1 of the Constitution, the requirements for federal elections were handled at a state level. The right to suffrage, or the power to vote, was granted exclusively to white men who owned land. Because the country was so young, the founders believed these men's economic ties to the country were a valuable trait.

In the early 1800s, some men supported allowing more people to vote. Following a period without political parties or choices for voters, the country returned to a two-party political system in the 1820s. There was also new interest in suffrage. White men continued to move west seeking available land, but many did not feel that property ownership should be required to vote. Many states removed that requirement, opening the door to voting for all white men.

Voting After The Civil War

While the country celebrated expanded voting rights for white men of all economic levels, voting still left out many people. Women and black Americans were still unable to vote. After the American Civil War in the 1860s, the Radical Republicans controlled Congress. These men were primarily white Northerners who wanted to restrict the power of the South.

As a result of the 13th Amendment, passed in 1865, many free black Americans lived in the South as well as in the North. Radical Republicans saw this as a way to help their own cause and to extend voting rights to newly free black men. In 1870, the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed. It said that 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."

While the 15th Amendment granted black men the right to vote, it did not address citizenship. The 14th Amendment of 1869 classified anyone born in the United States as a citizen and granted those citizens equal protection. This amendment became the basis for citizenship. The Indian Citizen Act of 1924 allowed indigenous Americans to vote, but did not enforce the right. It took another 40 years for all U.S. states to grant full suffrage to indigenous Americans.

Discrimination In Voting Continued

Many legal cases have cited the 14th Amendment. It was also at the center the civil rights movement, which challenged discrimination and voter suppression black Americans faced.

Black Americans faced Supreme Court challenges (like Plessy v. Ferguson in 1898) that defended separation of the races. They also faced challenges at the polls. Legal state discrimination included requiring blacks to pay a poll tax and pass a literacy test before they could vote. Many also faced threats of violence, lynching and other scare tactics.

The federal government finally reinforced black Americans' right to vote in the 1960s. Many people participated in speeches, sit-ins and marches supporting voting rights for blacks. The 24th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 protected the right of black Americans and others to vote.

The Fight For Women's Suffrage

Women were important opponents to slavery in the mid 19th century. They saw similarities in how enslaved people and women were treated during the period. A women's rights movement developed around the 1840s under the leadership of women including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. At the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, they introduced the "Declaration of Sentiments." That document included a change to the Declaration of Independence, declaring that "all men and women are created equal." This was an important step toward women's suffrage in the United States.

Wyoming was the first state to give women the right to vote in 1869. It was not until 1920 that white women were granted the ability to vote nationwide. African American women continued to face obstacles to vote for many years following the 19th Amendment. Progressive reforms and women's work in factories during World War I helped drive support. The National American Woman Suffrage Association's constant protests, campaigning and marches finally gained support from prominent politicians such as President Woodrow Wilson. It led more women to become involved in politics and government.

Lowering The Voting Age

Through the 1960s, the voting age in the United States was 21. America was fighting a war in Vietnam at that time, and many men aged 18 and older were being drafted into the military. Americans recognized it was unfair that men and women old enough to go to war were not able to vote.

In 1971, the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age for U.S. citizens by three years. Today, 18-year-olds across the country have the right to vote.

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Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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