Today, most American citizens who are 18 or over are entitled to vote in federal and state elections, but that was not always the case. The United States Constitution did not originally define who could or could not vote. It did, however, establish how voting would take place for certain positions in the new federal government.
Article 1 of the Constitution states that members of the House of Representatives would be elected directly by popular vote. Senators were originally chosen by state legislatures, but the 17th Amendment in 1913 changed that. Senators are now also directly elected by the people in a state.
The president, however, is not chosen by a direct vote but rather by a group known as the Electoral College. Each state has a certain number of delegates to the Electoral College, based on its population. During the election, when one person wins the popular vote in a state, he or she win the electoral votes for that state. (Maine and Nebraska do things a little differently). Once all of the votes are in, whichever candidate has the majority of electoral votes wins the election and becomes president. If one person does not have the majority, then the House of Representatives votes on who will become president.
Expanding Voting Rights Took Hundreds Of Years
When the Constitution was written, the question of who could vote was mostly left to the states. Through the early 1800s, only white male landowners were allowed to vote, while women, Black people, and other disadvantaged groups were not. Being denied the right to vote is called disenfranchisement.
It was not until the 15th Amendment in 1870 that Black men were given the right to vote. Even then, Black men faced difficulties when they tried to vote, such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and other measures.
These discriminatory practices would not end until the 1960s. In 1964, the 24th Amendment made poll taxes illegal. The next year, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 ended Jim Crow segregation laws.
The Passage Of The 19th Amendment
American women were disenfranchised until 1920. That year, the long struggle of the women's suffrage movement resulted in the 19th Amendment. However, Black women would continue to face many obstacles to vote even after the 19th Amendment.
With the removal of barriers based on race and sex, most all American citizens over the age of 21 could vote by the mid 1960s. In 1971, the American voting age was lowered to 18. At that time, many Americans felt if you were old enough to serve your country in the military, then you should be allowed to vote. The voting age still stands at 18 today. Many more Americans have voting rights now than in our Founding Fathers' day.
Does My Vote Really Make A Difference?
Do you sometimes think one person's vote cannot make much of a difference? Two of the closest elections in U.S. history might make you think again.
In 2000, Al Gore narrowly lost the Electoral College vote to George W. Bush. The election came down to a recount in Florida. In the end, Bush won Florida by 0.009 percent of the votes cast in the state, or 537 votes. If 600 more pro-Gore voters went to the polls in Florida that November, the election may have turned out differently. There may have been a different president from 2001-2009.
More recently, Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016 with an Electoral College win of 304 to 227. The election did not come down to a handful of votes in one state as it did in 2000. Clinton actually won the national popular vote by nearly three million votes, but Trump got enough electoral votes to become president.
Trump won the popular vote in key areas of "swing" states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. Like most states, these have a "winner take all" system. That means the popular vote winner gets all the state's electoral votes. The loser gets none. In 2016, the Electoral College decided a tight race.
Voter Impact In Smaller Elections
One voter may not directly elect the president. But if that vote is combined with others in a particular voting district or county it can definitely matter in a close election.
There are also local and state elections to consider. Presidential or other national elections usually get a significant voter turnout. Local elections, on the other hand, are usually decided by a much smaller group of voters.
Low turnout means that important elections, like those of a mayor or a city councilor, are decided by a limited group of voters. It is also true that local issues, such as those about schools or parks, can be decided by a small number of voters. In local elections even a single vote may be meaningful.
Be Active In Politics Before You Vote
If you are not yet 18, or are not a U.S. citizen, you can still participate in the election process. You may not be able to walk into a voting booth, but there are things you can do to get involved:
Be informed. Read up on political issues (both local and national) that are important to you and figure out where you stand.
Get out and talk to people. Even if you cannot vote, you can still voice opinions on social media, in your school newspaper, or in other public forums.
Volunteer. Work on a campaign to support a particular candidate. You can help with phone calls, door-to-door outreach, writing postcards, volunteering at campaign headquarters, etc. Your work can help get a candidate elected, even if you are not able to vote yourself.
Participating in free elections is one of the most important rights in American life. Many people in countries around the world do not have the same freedom, nor did many Americans in centuries past. No matter what you believe or whom you support, it is important to exercise your rights.