democracy is a work in progress

Expansion of Voting Rights

Problem Brief

Expansion of Voting Rights2024-06-11T08:52:40-05:00
  • We the People placards at 2017 Women's March


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 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 the formerly enslaved 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, the formerly enslaved, 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.

Yet today, the Republican Party finds itself entertaining some of the same unsettling nativist and authoritarian impulses that characterized Europe throughout the 20th century. These ideals are antithetical to what it means to be a Republican, and what it means to be American.

— from Defending Democracy Together

Voting Rights Timeline

The great promise of American democracy in the late 1700s meant that only about 6% of the population could vote. That quickly began to change.

  • U.S. Constitution gives states power to regulate voting

    Because there was no agreement on a national standard for voting rights, states were given the power to regulate their own voting laws. In most cases, voting remained in the hands of white male Christian landowners. When Americans elected their first national leader in 1789, only this demographic – making up just 6% of the population – was eligible to vote.

  • Path to citizenship (and voting) restricted

    The Naturalization Act of 1790 passed. It explicitly stated that only “free white” immigrants could become naturalized citizens. Limiting who could obtain citizenship was an effective mechanism used throughout our history to exclude various groups of people from voting.

  • Some white men without property get the vote

    New Hampshire became the first state to eliminate property requirements for voting.

  • Last religion-based restrictions lifted

    Maryland became the last state to remove religious barriers. States no longer denied eligible voters the right to vote on the basis of religion.

  • All white men can vote

    North Carolina became the last state to remove property ownership as a requirement to vote. Rich or poor, all white men could now vote.


Beginning in the early 1830s, a widening circle of women, and a few men, began encouraging greater participation by women in areas of society that were the exclusive domain of men. In particular, women’s roles started to grow alongside the growth of the movement to abolish slavery. A woman’s right to vote became a primary focus.

  • Women begin to seek the right to vote

    Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Coffin Mott organized the first convention on women’s rights in Seneca Falls, NY – what became known as the Seneca Falls Convention. The women presented and debated a “Declaration of Sentiments” that ended up including, with encouragement from Frederick Douglass, the sole African American to attend the convention, the women’s right to vote.

  • First women get the vote

    Wyoming was the first territory to give women the right to vote.

  • Women’s right to vote enshrined in Wyoming’s State Constitution

    Wyoming was admitted to the union as the nation’s 44th state. Its constitution was the first state constitution to grant women the right to vote. Other western states followed.

  • Congress passes 19th Amendment

    The amendment to give women the right to vote passed in the US House of Representatives with substantially more votes than the two-thirds majority it needed. Two weeks later, it passed in the Senate with just two votes more than the required two-thirds majority.

  • Women get the vote

    On August 26, within 14 months of its passage by Congress, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified by 36 states, giving women the right to vote nationwide. Estimates suggest that on Election Day that November, about eight to nine million women around the country, or about 36% of eligible women voters, voted for the first time.


The path to voting began with the emancipation of African slaves, and then the granting of citizenship and the right to vote in the 14th and 15th Amendments. The struggle to retain that right began in earnest after Reconstruction, when southern Democrats found ways to keep Black citizens from casting their ballots. Not until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 did the Black community, particularly in the South, begin to participate more fully and with greater impunity in the promise of American democracy.

So sweeping were these victories for civil rights that they largely ended Jim Crow in the south. Southern Democrats who had opposed the legislation switched their allegiance to the Republican Party, a seismic shift in American politics that would alter the Republican landscape and eventually create a platform for extreme views on race and the exercise of democracy.

  • Lincoln freed all slaves

    The Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 set January 1, 1863 as the date on which the United States’ 3.5 million enslaved Africans would legally be considered freed. The new law was ignored by the Confederate states.

  • Enslaved Africans learned they had been freed

    Although the Civil War had formally ended weeks before, news of their freedom did not reach enslaved Africans in Texas until June 19th, what is now celebrated as “Juneteenth”.

  • Freed Africans given citizenship

    The 14th Amendment was ratified, granting freed slaves US citizenship and making the infrequently used reference (at the time), “African Americans”, more a fact than a simple geographic description.

  • African American men given the vote

    The 15th Amendment passed, stating that voting rights cannot be denied to any citizen at federal or state levels based on race. The federal presence in the South during this period of Reconstruction helped to jumpstart African American voter participation and led to the election of approximately 2000 Black candidates to public office; 16 Black men served in the US Congress during this period.

  • 90 years of Black voter suppression begins

    With the Compromise of 1877, infamously known as “The Great Betrayal”, federal troops were withdrawn from the South and the former Confederate states, led by southern Democrats, soon began to use intimidation and a range of institutional mechanisms, including poll taxes and literacy tests, to disenfranchise Black voters.

  • Supreme Court ruling spurs Jim Crow

    In a ruling on five civil rights cases that it had combined due to their similarity, the Supreme Court declared the Civil Rights Act of 1875 to be unconstitutional. The 8-1 decision struck down the Act’s provision against racial discrimination in public places like trains, restaurants, and hotels. In the ruling, the Court denied that Congress had the power to legislate against expressions of racial discrimination by private individuals and businesses. The ruling opened the door to the Southern states to enact more Jim Crow laws.

  • Jim Crow laws more broadly adopted

    By the 1890s, Jim Crow laws and the segregated culture of “separate but equal” were becoming enshrined in Southern culture. In 1898, Louisiana adopted a “Grandfather Clause” as part of its state constitution. This clause exempted poor white voters from the tests and taxes used to prevent former slaves and their adult children from voting. By 1902, all 11 former Confederate states had passed laws intended to limit Black voters’ electoral participation. Violence and threats of violence were also used to deter Southern Blacks from voting. The efforts succeeded, as voter turnout began a steep decline. In Louisiana, the percentage of registered Black voters dropped from 44.8% in 1896 to 4.0 % four years later.

  • “Grandfather Clauses” eliminated

    The US Supreme Court struck down grandfather clauses in Guinn v United States, but indicated that suppressive laws like literacy tests were OK, provided that they were not attached to a grandfather clause. The ruling had little impact on suppressive legislation.

  • African Americans get legal support

    The Civil Rights Act of 1957 authorized the US Attorney General to file lawsuits on behalf of African Americans who were denied the right to vote. The 1957 Act was the first civil rights act since Reconstruction.

  • Poll taxes eliminated

    The 24th Amendment was ratified, eliminating the poll tax for all federal elections.

  • Supreme Court decisions uphold principle of “one person, one vote”

    In separate rulings, the Supreme Court determined that districts for electing members of both the US House of Representatives (Wesberry v Sanders) and state legislatures (Reynolds v Sims) had to be approximately equal in population.

  • Unequal application of voter registration requirements prohibited

    Passage of the Civil Rights Act included a prohibition on the unequal application of voter registration requirements, a common practice in the Jim Crow states of the South. The Act’s passage also proved to be a turning point in American politics as many southern Democrats who opposed the legislation switched allegiance to the Republican Party.

  • State-level voter discrimination outlawed

    Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which among other things, banned the use of literacy tests and gave the federal government oversight of election laws in states that had previously participated in egregious discriminatory practices.


Like African Americans, Native Americans faced prohibitive and discriminatory legislation regarding their citizenship status and right to vote that was variously upheld and overturned as the country slowly moved towards more inclusive policies.

  • 14th Amendment not applied to Native Americans

    Although the 14th Amendment established that African slaves born in the US and subject to its jurisdiction were US citizens, it did not apply to Native Americans, who were considered at the time to have allegiance to their tribes and who were deemed to be governed by tribal laws.

  • Path to citizenship for Native Americans

    Passage of the Dawes Act offered native people a path to citizenship if they were willing to give up their tribal association. Approximately two-thirds of Native Americans became citizens in this manner over the next 37 years.

  • A less-used path to citizenship

    The American Indian Citizenship Act gave Native Americans who served in the military during World War I the opportunity to apply for citizenship. The Act applied to the approximately 9,000 Native Americans who served during the war; few of them chose to apply under the Act.

  • Citizenship for all Native Americans

    The Indian Citizenship Act granted all Native Americans citizenship. Many states nonetheless made laws and policies which prohibited Native Americans from voting.

  • Legal barriers to Native American voting removed

    Miguel Trujillo, a Native American and former Marine, sued New Mexico for not allowing him to vote. He won and New Mexico and Arizona were required to give the vote to all Native Americans. The last state laws denying Native Americans the right to vote were overturned in 1948.

Following the groundbreaking Supreme Court decisions that introduced the principle of “one person, one vote” and passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the country experienced a kind of golden age of civil rights that included passage of several pieces of federal legislation that made it easier for different groups of people to vote. This period effectively ended with the voter purges in Florida that quite possibly changed the outcome of the 2000 presidential election. Nevertheless, we’ve included the second 25-year extension of the Voting Rights Act as a fitting if somewhat symbolic marker for the end of this golden age.

We should clarify that at this point the right to vote extended to all US citizens in the 50 states and the District of Columbia, but the four million US citizens living on five US territories – Puerto Rico, Guam, the US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands – were and still are barred from voting for president in the general election. And the territories and the District still lack full representation in Congress.

As the Republican Party shifted increasingly to the extreme right and its power grew in the states and at the federal level, party officials renewed efforts to suppress the Black and Latino vote through a range of tactics, often citing voter fraud as their rationale despite a lack of evidence that voter fraud exists at any significant level. Tactics used by Republicans during this period included voter purges, enactment of strict voter ID laws, poll closings, voter intimidation, and extreme gerrymandering.

  • Florida purges eligible voters

    Under Republican Governor Jeb Bush, the state led an effort to enforce a law that barred ex-felons from voting. As a result, Florida purged 58,000 names from voter rolls in the 2000 presidential election. Republican candidate George W. Bush, the governor’s brother, won that controversial election when the Supreme Court declared him the winner in Florida. The margin of victory in Florida was 537 votes. The following year, an investigation found that at least 1,100 eligible voters had been wrongly removed from the rolls. Eventually, a court-ordered analysis determined that more than 12,000 eligible voters may have been wrongly purged and barred from voting.

  • Report supports new photo ID requirements

    The Carter-Baker Commission Report on Election Reform made several controversial recommendations. Most significantly, it advocated for the requirement that a photo ID be presented when voting as a means to combat voter fraud. The Brennan Center for Justice and other voter advocacy groups opposed this and other recommendations, citing a lack of data that voter fraud occurred at any significant level and pointing out that many people lacked the need for and the convenience of obtaining a photo ID. The number of states with strict voter ID laws began to rise soon after the report was released.

  • Supreme Court eliminates federal oversight of states’ election laws

    The Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder essentially gutted the VRA and eliminated federal oversight of state and local jurisdictions with a prior history of discriminatory behavior. Since this ruling, The Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights has reported that  “courts have found intentional discrimination in at least 10 voting rights decisions.”

  • Decades-old ban on Republican election practices lifted

    A US District Court order that banned the Republican National Committee from engaging in improper and discriminatory practices at the polls was allowed to expire at the end of 2017. In a 1981 lawsuit, the Democratic National Committee successfully argued that the Republic National Committee had improperly removed people in communities of color from the voter rolls and had hired off-duty police officers to patrol minority-dominated precincts in a manner that the Court agreed was designed to intimidate minority voters. Originally instituted in 1982, the decree was modified in 1987 and 1990 after courts found instances where the RNC had violated the ban. The court found another violation in 2004.


The COVID-19 pandemic threw primary elections and the general election into turmoil in 2020 as states tried to balance the risk of spreading the virus at polling centers with the desire to make sure voters were able to have their say in the democratic process. As many states turned to an expansion of absentee balloting, enabling more people to vote by mail, President Trump publicly admitted to the fear that if mail-in voting increased, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

In the months leading up to and following the November general election, Trump and other Republican leaders repeated unsubstantiated accusations of voter fraud and rigged elections. Dozens of lawsuits filed by the Trump team after the election were denied by the courts in multiple states. Yet the false claims of an illegitimate election victory by Joe Biden persist well into Biden’s presidency. Even a failed insurrection on January 6, 2021 – an effort to stop Congress from certifying the election results – was not enough to put an end to the lie. In fact, Kevin McCarthy, Republican leader in the House of Representatives, still voted against certification hours after the perpetrators were removed and disbursed. Weeks later, he refused to support calls for a second impeachment of the president and an independent investigation of the violent mob. And in April, he tried to walk back his own statements about Trump’s responsibility for the attack on the Capitol.

Support by Republican leaders for the attack and perpetuation of the lie of a stolen election is  a reflection of both how far the Party has come from its conservative roots and an existential threat to the American experiment in democracy. Opposition to what some have called a “slow coup” has so far been scattered and unproductive as the calendar turns to 2022 and the midterm elections.

In this section, our timeline entries consist of recent progress updates detailing the current struggles to protect not just voting rights for all, but the integrity of our electoral process.

Voting Rights Battle: Partisan Conflict or Attack on Democracy?

The battle being waged over voting rights in state legislatures and the US Congress has been too easily mischaracterized as a partisan fight. Texas Democrats walked out to avoid a floor vote and bring attention to a state-by-state attack on our democracy.

2024-05-23T10:39:45-05:00July 19, 2021|

Mainers Again Flex Their Independence to Protect Their Vote

A ballot initiative to ban foreign money from influencing state elections and support an amendment to the US Constitution to regulate campaign spending reflects Maine’s continuing role as a laboratory for voting reforms aimed at strengthening the power and voice of local citizens.

2022-10-08T16:16:38-05:00December 15, 2021|

Can the Army of Anti-Democracy Republicans Be Stopped?

A record number of opponents of fair elections are being recruited to run for office, administer elections, and mount election challenges. At this point, the quest to prevent Republican victory at the polls has ceased being a partisan mission and become instead a constitutional imperative.

2022-06-08T14:41:17-05:00June 7, 2022|

No Central Command in Battle Against Anti-Democracy Candidates

Hundreds of election deniers are running for office. With the integrity of our elections once again at stake in November, efforts to thwart the forces that would destroy what's left of our democratic foundation are hampered by the lack of a clear, coordinated battle plan.

2022-09-01T19:49:54-05:00July 25, 2022|

Threat to Democracy Coming Into Focus

More Americans are recognizing that their choice at the ballot box this fall is between continuing as a country governed by a democratically chosen majority and giving away that right to a party dominated by people who no longer respect election results or our democratic institutions.

2024-04-18T10:45:36-05:00September 1, 2022|

Abortion Access is Frontline in Church-State Struggle

Intentionally or not, the opposition to abortion rights has generated an attack on the First Amendment principle of separation of church and state. And their victory in Dobbs has further emboldened anti-democracy forces that would make this a Christian nation.

2024-01-26T15:54:36-05:00October 22, 2022|

Building a More Perfect Union in 2023

2022 ended with sighs of relief and celebrations that the red wave didn’t happen, that voters rejected efforts to codify strict anti-abortion laws, that the budget deficit was cut in half, and that there was some bipartisan support for climate change action and improved access to healthcare. All good, but there is still work to be done.

2023-10-02T13:19:24-05:00January 6, 2023|

Bipartisan Hope Isn’t Helping Divided Congress Avoid Debt Crisis

Our Congress has two faces: We saw the authoritarian one during the rancorous vote for House Speaker, while the other is seen in an op-ed that lauds the bipartisan collaboration that produced over 200 recommendations for making Congress work more efficiently. As we brace for another game of chicken over the debt ceiling, it’s clear which face is doing the talking.

2023-02-22T14:01:14-05:00January 26, 2023|

Protecting Voting Rights and Our Elections

Despite significant losses for election deniers in last November’s midterm elections, many anti-democracy candidates won key administrative and legislative seats up and down the ballot, and attacks on voting rights and the integrity of our elections continue.

2023-10-12T16:05:59-05:00June 25, 2023|

Further Fracturing in the GOP

Is it possible for a political party to get stronger even as it fractures? That’s the question hanging over American politics as the Republican Party has increasingly divided itself into pro-Trumpists, never-Trumpists, and politically-convenient Trumpists. Here’s a rundown of some notable developments.

2024-06-17T09:43:07-05:00April 18, 2024|


The URLs included with the sources below were good links when we published. However, as third party websites are updated over time, some links may be broken. We do not update these broken links. If you are interested in the source, it may be possible to find it by copying and pasting the URL into a search on the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. From the search results, be sure to choose a date from around the time our article was published.

Northern California Citizenship Project Mobilize the Immigrant Vote 2004 – Capacity Building Series,  “U.S. Voting Rights Timeline”,, accessed Aug 30, 2019

iVote Civic Education Fund, Voting Rights Timeline,, accessed Aug 30, 2019

Grace Panetta and Olivia Reaney,  “The evolution of American voting rights in 242 years shows how far we’ve come — and how far we still have to go,” Business Insider, Feb 15, 2019,, accessed Aug 30, 2019

ACLU, “Voting Rights Act: Major Dates in History”,, accessed Aug 2019

Ron Chernow, Grant, Penguin Publishing Group, Oct 2017

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The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, “Democracy Diverted: Polling Place Closures and the Right to Vote”, Sep 2019,, accessed Jun 21, 2020

Carnegie Corporation of New York, “Voting Rights: A Short History”, Nov 18, 2019,, accessed Jun 22, 2020

Brennan Center for Justice, “Voting Rights Groups Respond to Carter-Baker Commission Report on Election Reform”, Sep 19, 2005,, accessed Jun 18, 2020

Michael Wines, “Freed by Court Ruling, Republicans Step Up Effort to Patrol Voting”, NY Times, May 18, 2020,, accessed Jun 18, 2020

Vann R. Newkirk II, “The Republican Party Emerges From Decades of Court Supervision”, The Atlantic, Jan 9, 2018,, accessed Jun 18, 2020

President George W. Bush, “President Bush Signs Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2006”, The White House, Jul 27, 2006,, accessed Jun 25, 2020


Related Problem: Voting Rights

Contributors: George LinzerMichael DealFlannery Wiest
Published: November 3, 2019
Last Updated: September 21, 2021

Feature image: George Linzer

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