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Electing the President: Who Has the Right to Vote?

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Worth Reading

  • News21: Voting Rights
  • VIDEO: Democracy Distilled: a History of Our Nation's Voting Rights
  • HNN Hot Topics: Election 2012
  • HNN Hot Topics: Electing Presidents
  • HNN Hot Topics: The Electoral College
  • 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
  • 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
  • 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
  • 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
  • 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
  • Background

    All U.S. citizens over 18 years of age have the right to vote. This was not always the case. Before the 26th Amendment was ratified in 1971, only those 21 or older were guaranteed the right to vote by the federal government. Before the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, only men 21 years old or older were guaranteed the right to vote by the federal government. Before the 15th Amendment was ratified in 1870, only white men 21 years old or older were guaranteed the right to vote by the federal government. (Much, much more on all of this in the historical background section).

    But now everyone over 18 can vote. Sounds good, right? So what's with all the controversy recently about voting rights?

    The right to vote has always been a messy business in America thanks to our system of federalism. Since the very beginning of the United States and right down to the present day, each state has been largely responsible for its setting its own qualifications for voters.

    What does this mean today?

    For example, most states -- Florida is a case in point -- a person convicted of a felony cannot vote, even after being released from prison (this affects nearly 6 million Americans, most convicted of nonviolent drug charges). But in a handful of states like Maine, a felon can vote by absentee ballot from prison.

    Voter registration also varies from state to state. Minnesota regularly leads the nation in voter turnout thanks to in no small part to same-day voter registration -- all you need to do is simply turn up at the polls. In Pennsylvania, on the other hand, voters must register 30 days prior to the election in order to vote.

    The biggest controversy this year has been over voter ID laws requiring voters to present a photo ID before voting, ostensibly in order to prevent voter fraud. Voter ID laws have been passed in Georgia, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Kansas, and are under consideration in many other states.

    But a recent non-partisan study determined that of the hundreds upon hundreds of millions of votes cast in elections since 2000, there have been only around 2,000 cases of electoral fraud -- most attributable to mistakes rather than malicious intent.

    What the Right Says

    Republicans argue that measures like voter ID laws are necessary to prevent voter fraud, and that felons forfeited the right to vote by choosing to commit crimes in the first place.

    What the Left Says

    Democrats are adamant that voting restrictions, particularly voter ID laws, are an attempt by Republicans to prevent young people, the poor, and minorities from voting -- these are all groups that tend to vote Democratic and are also the groups that are most likely to lack valid photo ID -- pointing to studies which show voter fraud as essentially nonexistent.

    Some (though by no means all) liberals also argue against permanently disbarring ex-convicts from voting, arguing that such a harsh policy encourages former felons to re-offend.

    Historical Background

    Before independence from Great Britain, each individual colony had its own voting laws, many of which excluded certain groups from voting -- a 1737 New York law, for example, banned Jews from the ballot box. Most colonies also had property requirements, meaning that a (white male) citizen had to own a certain amount of land or possess a certain amount of money in order to vote (the idea was that men of property had more of a stake in their communities).

    Property requirements were gradually removed at the state level throughout the late eighteen and early nineteenth centuries. Vermont was the first state to introduce universal male suffrage in 1777; by the age of Andrew Jackson, most white male citizens were able to vote, regardless of their wealth. This still left a huge number of people who were disqualified: women, slaves, free blacks, Native Americans, and other ethnic minorities.

    As part of Reconstruction (1863-1877), the reincorporation of the defeated Confederacy back into the Union after the Civil War, Congress passed (and the states ratified) the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, respectively freeing the slaves, extending citizenship to the freed slaves, and guaranteeing the right to vote to all citizens regardless of race. Newly enfranchised freed slaves flocked to the polls, electing hundreds of African American state legislators throughout the South, not to mention fifteen African American representatives and two senators to the U.S. Congress.

    When Reconstruction ended in 1877, the Southern states successfully disenfranchised the overwhelming majority of black voters. This was done not by passing laws banning blacks from voting -- that's unconstitutional! -- but by imposing poll taxes (requiring voters to pay a fee in order to vote), literacy tests (most freed slaves were illiterate), and exempting white voters from meeting these requirements through the so-called “grandfather clause” (if your grandfather or father was qualified to vote, then you were exempt from voting restrictions). The number of African American voters plummeted, and most Southern blacks would remain disenfranchised until the mid-twentieth century -- in 1940, only 3 percent of black Southerners were registered to vote, despite the fact that in some states African Americans were in the majority.

    At the same time, Chinese immigrants in the West were denied the pathway to citizenship, and thus the vote, by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Native Americans were also generally denied the vote through a series of complicated legal mechanisms similar to those blacks faced in the South. This situation only began to change after the turn of the century, and even then only very slowly. An act of Congress in 1925 gave all Native Americans full citizenship, but even this did not allow all Native Americans to vote, despite the provisions of the 15th Amendment.

    Women, on the other hand, had their voting rights cemented nationally by the 19th Amendment in 1920, though women's suffragists had been protesting for the vote since 1848 -- and in fact Wyoming became the first state to grant women the right to vote in 1869.

    Voting rights for African Americans, Native Americans, and other ethnic minorities continued to be suppressed throughout the first half of the twentieth century, especially in areas that had sizable minority populations. However, legal barriers erected against certain ethnic minorities gaining citizen gradually began to be removed in the 1940s, and black voter registration in the South began to modestly increase (from 3 percent in 1940 to 13 percent in 1947). But resistance to black voter registration in the South was savage -- infamously, three civil rights volunteers who were registering black voters in Mississippi in 1964 were murdered by local members of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan, and a year later local police in Selma, Alabama attacked a peaceful march in support for voting rights (itself held in response to an Alabama state trooper killing an unarmed voting rights activist).

    1965 marked a turning point in the history of voting in America with the signing of the Voting Rights Act by President Lyndon B. Johnson and the final repeal of immigration and citizenship quotas. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and other measures designed to prevent African Americans from voting were declared illegal under federal law. An extension to the Voting Rights Act was signed by George W. Bush in 2006.

    With the ratification of the 26th Amendment in 1971, for first time in U.S. history, the right to vote was extended to all American citizens over 18 years of age regardless of race, color, gender, or creed. In theory, anyway -- the controversy continues over the exercise of the vote, as opposed to the legal right to vote.


  • Is voting an inalienable right or a privilege? Why or why not?
  • Are voter ID laws a good idea? Why or why not?
  • Should a person convicted of a crime, provided he or she has paid his/her debt to society, be allowed to vote, or should he/she permanently be disenfranchised? Why or why not?
  • Can you draw connections between the exercise of the vote and important events/themes in American history (i.e. civil rights)?