The History and Development of Voting Rights in the United States

( – Unlike most nations, the United States has always been a constitutional republic. We’ve never been ruled by an unelected emperor or hereditary king; our president has always been elected. That said, the electorate hasn’t always been as broad as it is today. We’re currently used to almost all adult citizens having the vote, but that’s the result of a long process of social change.

The Constitution says the president and members of Congress will be elected, but the original text left the question of who was allowed to vote for them up to the states. At the first Presidential election, in 1789, most states limited the vote to property-owning white men, around 6% of the US population.

It wasn’t long before things started to change. Kentucky abolished the property ownership requirement in 1792, and the other states followed over the next few decades. By 1825, only three states still had it, and the last abolished it in 1856.

In 1870, the 15th Amendment was ratified, prohibiting either state or federal governments from denying the vote to anyone on grounds of their “race, color or previous condition of servitude,” which, in theory, gave all male US citizens the right to vote. However, many states introduced poll taxes or literacy tests, functionally denying many black men the ability to vote.

Of course, all women were barred from voting, and by the 1870s, many of them refused to accept that anymore. Susan B. Anthony was arrested and fined after voting in the 1872 election and continued fighting for women’s suffrage for the rest of her life. She died in 1906 with her goal unachieved, but in 1920, the 19th Amendment finally granted the vote to American women.

Native Americans were granted citizenship – and the right to vote – in 1924, although some Western states defied the law for years. Arizona and New Mexico were the last to comply, in 1948. The Magnuson Act gave Chinese immigrants a route to citizenship and voting in 1943, and Washington, DC, residents got the right through the 23rd Amendment in 1961.

A final rush of legislation in the 1960s struck down the last race bars to voting. The 24th Amendment banned poll tax qualifications in 1964, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act protected the registration and voting rights of minorities.

The last big change came in 1971. Following protests from young Vietnam veterans, the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, so anyone old enough to fight for the country could have a say in how it’s governed.

There are still adult US citizens who don’t have the right to vote. All but two states – Maine and Vermont – restrict voting rights for convicted felons. Some states only bar felons from voting while they’re incarcerated; others extend the ban to the end of parole or probation, and some require felons to submit an individual petition to have their rights returned.

It’s unlikely the federal government will legislate for felons’ rights, as the Supreme Court has ruled that it’s constitutional to restrict them, so the US voting rights’ journey has probably reached its destination. With all law-abiding adult citizens able to vote, that’s probably the perfect place to stay.

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