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Expansion of Voting Rights

Storyline

Expansion of Voting Rights2020-09-14T11:22:46-05:00

Introduction

We the People poster at the Women's March 2017

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 will examine that history in our forthcoming storyline on immigration and the promise of democracy.

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.

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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.

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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.

  • 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.

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Like African Americans, Native American 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.

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Following the groundbreaking Supreme Court decisions that introduced the principle of “one person, one vote”, a principle that quickly became embedded in the foundation of our democracy, and 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 likely 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 that 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.

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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 wrongly have been purged.

  • 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.

  • Pandemic spotlights fears of increased voter participation

    The COVID-19 pandemic, occurring in an election year, has given new impetus to state campaigns to increase mail-in voting in order to protect voters and volunteer poll workers, who are predominantly older and most vulnerable to COVID. Mail-in voting would reduce the in-person turnout at the polls and so, reduce the risk of exposure and spread of the disease. Yet, in Wisconsin, for example, Milwaukee had to close 175 of 180 polling centers due to the risks, while Republicans there and in other states resisted common sense expansion of mail-in voting and deadline extensions for submitting mail-in votes. In addition, President Trump publicly admitted to the fear that if mail-in voting increased, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

  • Republicans recruiting 50,000 poll watchers for 15 key states

    The NY Times has reported that Republicans are mounting an effort to put 50,000 volunteers in 15 key states to monitor voter fraud, despite a persistent lack of evidence that voter fraud occurs at a level that would warrant such an investment of time and organizational resources. Given the Republican Party’s track record, voting rights advocates and Democrats suspect the real intent is to stop people from voting. 

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Sources

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Written by George Linzer with contributions from Michael Deal and Flannery Wiest

Published on June 23, 2020

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Voting Rights Problem Brief

Voter imageDespite the steady expansion of voting rights throughout the course of US history, groups of eligible voters have frequently faced oppressive laws and intimidation designed to keep them from voting. Today, active voter suppression, gerrymandering, and other systemic features of our electoral system are undermining the right to vote and to have that vote count in a meaningful way. When voters believe that their vote doesn’t mean anything, they will often stop voting. That puts democracy at risk.

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