The right to vote in America is a fundamental democratic liberty – it is one of those rights that we fight wars to defend. Yet, when the nation was founded, voting was almost exclusively reserved for propertied white men. Since then, voting rights have slowly grown more inclusive, expanding to an ever broader cross-section of the American public, but this progress has almost always been hard won.
Voting rights are correctly tied to citizenship – you have to be a citizen in order to be eligible to vote. Throughout our history, this linkage has also meant that voting rights were closely tied to the paths to citizenship available to — or made unavailable to — different immigrant populations, native peoples, and former slaves and their descendants.
The Constitution does not stipulate who can vote. Instead, it is left to the states to decide, and they have often tried—with varying degrees of success—to limit voting. States initially allowed only a select few to cast a ballot, enacting property, tax, religion, gender, and race requirements. When George Washington was elected president, most white men could not vote as they did not own property. Only six percent of the total population was eligible to vote in that first election.
With time, pressures mounted to remove restrictions, beginning with the landowning requirement. In 1856, North Carolina became the last state to drop property demands for white men. And while the Constitution decreed that no officeholder should be subjected to a religion test, several states continued to require one for voting until 1828, when Maryland allowed Jews to enter the ballot booth. By the 1860s, all white males, regardless of their religion and property status, largely enjoyed universal suffrage in the US.
Other segments of the population did not fare as well. Women, African Americans, Native Americans, and many immigrants were barred from casting ballots for much of the country’s existence. African Americans gained citizenship with the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868. The Fifteenth Amendment, passed two years later, gave African American men the right to vote. Still, the Southern states suppressed the black vote through intimidation (lynchings, shootings, and other acts of violence) and various other measures—such as poll taxes and literacy tests. Such efforts proved so effective that by the early 20th century, nearly all African Americans had been disenfranchised in the South.
The history of voting rights in the US is largely the story of the struggles of women, former slaves, and native peoples to secure the right to vote – then to keep it. Repeated attacks on voting rights and efforts to manipulate the outcome of the vote continue up to this day, as illustrated in the timeline included here and discussed in more detail in the problem brief on voting rights.
The timeline offers a brief glimpse into the steady but often challenged expansion of voting rights.
NOTE: Throughout our history, immigrants have also struggled to obtain and then exercise their right to vote, but their struggle is more closely tied to the back-and-forth over their right to enter the country and become citizens. We examine that history in our storyline on the indifference of US law to immigrants.
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