First page of the US Constitution

US Constitution, pg. 1

Reprint of original 1812 newspaper article and cartoon illustrating first use of the term "Gerry-mander."

Map reproduction courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library

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.


“Even a cursory survey of world events over the last 20 — or 100 — years makes plain that democracies are fragile, that democratic institutions can be undermined from within. Ours are no exception.”

–Alexander Keyssar, professor of history and social policy at Harvard, is the author of The Right to Vote: the Contested History of Democracy in the United States.


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. African American men obtained the right to vote with the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868. The Fifteenth Amendment, passed two years later, gave them and their right to vote legal protection from racial discrimination. 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, native peoples, and immigrants 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 we discuss in the problem brief on voting rights.

The timeline offers a brief glimpse into the steady but often challenged expansion of voting rights.

  • US Constitution Adopted

    U.S. Constitution gives power of voting regulation to states. Because there is no agreement on a national standard for voting rights, states are given the power to regulate their own voting laws. In most cases, voting remains in the hands of white male landowners.

    Article 1, Section 3 gave state legislatures the right to elect its two representatives to the US Senate.

    Article II, Section I established the electoral college system under which each state was to create a body of electors who would elect the president and vice president.

  • Americans cast their first national ballots

    States were given the power to set voting requirements. Generally, they granted this right to property-owning or tax-paying white males. For the first time, Americans elected their national leader; 6% of the population was eligible to vote.

  • Path to citizenship (and voting) restricted

    The Naturalization Act of 1790 was passed. It explicitly stated that only “free white” immigrants can become naturalized citizens.

  • Some white men without property get the vote

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

  • Gerrymandering begins

    The practice of drawing district lines specifically to influence the outcome of an election existed before 1812, but in this year, it received the name by which it is known today. The term was coined in response to Governor Eldridge Gerry of Massachusetts, who authorized the redrawing of district lines to favor his party.  One of the redrawn districts appeared to resemble a salamander, thus giving birth to the term “gerry-mander”, which eventually became “gerrymander”.

  • Last restrictions based on religion lifted

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

  • Women begin the quest for the right to vote

    Frederick Douglass spoke at a women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, NY in support of universal voting rights. His speech helped convince the convention to adopt a resolution calling for voting rights for women.

  • All white men without property have the vote

    North Carolina is the last state to remove property ownership as a requirement to vote.

  • Former male slaves get citizenship and the right to vote that it confers

    The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution grants citizenship to “all people born or naturalized in the United States”. Despite the inclusive language, the amendment was generally interpreted as not granting citizenship to native peoples (later supported by a Supreme Court decision in 1876) nor conferring the right to vote to women.

  • First women get the vote

    Wyoming became the first state to give women the right to vote.

  • Racial barriers to voting eliminated

    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 keep voter suppression tactics somewhat in check.

  • Reconstruction ends; suppression grows

    With the Compromise of 1877, infamously known as “The Great Betrayal”, federal troops were withdrawn from the South and the former Confederate states expanded its use of intimidation and a range of suppression tactics, including poll taxes and literacy tests, to disenfranchise black voters. Poor white voters were often also affected.

  • Chinese immigrants barred from citizenship

    The Chinese Exclusion Act denied a path to citizenship to people of Chinese ancestry.

  • Path to citizenship created 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.

  • Voter suppression takes root as Jim Crow spreads

    Louisiana passed a “Grandfather Clause” to keep former slaves and their descendants from voting. By 1902, all 11 former confederate states had passed laws intended to limit electoral participation of black voters. These laws imposed a poll tax, literacy tests, and the grandfather test on former slaves and their descendants. Violence and threats of violence were also used to deter Southern blacks from voting. The efforts succeeded, as total voter turnout in the US began a steep 30-year decline from which we have never recovered. In Louisiana, the percentage of registered black voters dropped from 44.8% in 1896 to 4.0 % four years later.

  • Voters get to elect their senators

    The 17th Amendment was passed, giving voters rather than state legislatures the right to elect senators.

  • “Grandfather Clauses” eliminated

    The US Supreme Court struck down grandfather clauses in Guinn v. United States.

  • Native Americans gain another path to citizenship

    Native Americans who served in the military during World War I were granted U.S. citizenship.

  • Women get the vote

    The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, giving women the right to vote nationwide.

  • Japanese immigrants were barred from citizenship

    The Supreme Court ruled that people of Japanese heritage are ineligible to become naturalized citizens.

  • Asian Indians were barred from citizenship

    The Supreme Court found that Asian Indians were not eligible to become citizens.

  • All Native Americans gain citizenship

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

  • Chinese immigrants gain a path to citizenship

    Passage of the Magnuson Act gave Chinese immigrants the right to citizenship and the right to vote.

  • Last legal barriers to Native American voting removed

    The last state laws denying Native Americans the right to vote were overturned.

  • Asian immigrants no longer barred from citizenship

    The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, a generally restrictive immigration bill, granted all people of Asian ancestry the right to become citizens.

  • African Americans get federal 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.

  • Washington, DC gets some voting rights

    Ratification of the 23rd Amendment gave residents of Washington, D.C. the right to vote in U.S. Presidential Elections. The district’s residents—most of whom are African American—still do not have voting representation in Congress.

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more timeline to come ….

Northern California Citizenship Project Mobilize the Immigrant Vote 2004 – Capacity Building Series,  “U.S. Voting Rights Timeline”, https://a.s.kqed.net/pdf/education/digitalmedia/us-voting-rights-timeline.pdf, accessed Aug 30, 2019

iVote Civic Education Fund, Voting Rights Timeline, https://www.ivotecef.org/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, https://www.businessinsider.com/when-women-got-the-right-to-vote-american-voting-rights-timeline-2018-10, accessed Aug 30, 2019

ACLU, “Voting Rights Act: Major Dates in History”, https://www.aclu.org/issues/voting-rights/voting-rights-act/history-voting-rights-act?redirect=timelines/history-voting-rights-act, accessed Aug 2019

Ron Chernow, Grant, Penguin Publishing Group, Oct 2017

FairVote, “Voting Rights Timeline”, Aug 2004, http://archive.fairvote.org/righttovote/timeline.htm, accessed Aug 2019

Jone Johnson Lewis, “Women’s Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment”, ThoughtCo., Jun 23, 2019, https://www.thoughtco.com/womens-rights-and-the-fourteenth-amendment-3529473, accessed Nov 19, 2019

Wikipedia, “Seventeenth Amendment to the United States Constitution”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seventeenth_Amendment_to_the_United_States_Constitution, accessed Nov 19, 2019

Wikipedia, “Voting rights in the United States”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voting_rights_in_the_United_States, accessed Nov 19, 2019

Wikipedia, “Twenty-fourth Amendment to the United States”, accessed Nov 20, 2019

US Dept. of Justice, Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, https://www.justice.gov/crt/uniformed-and-overseas-citizens-absentee-voting-act, accessed Nov 20, 2019

Related Briefs: Voting Rights, Immigration
Profiles: Katie Fahey

Researched and written by George Linzer, Michael Deal

Published on November 5, 2019

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