Most of us were educated with a simplistic view of history in which the United States steadily evolved from denying the vote to all but wealthy white men to becoming ever-more inclusive. In truth, U.S. voting history is far from linear. Despite inspiring movement toward democracy elsewhere, we were among the last countries in the developed world to make voting universal, and hard-won advances have been interspersed with defeats at the hands of (mostly) racist opponents of democracy. Reclaim Democracy believes understanding our history more fully will help convey the need for eternal vigilance in defending our rights.
Just 20 years passed between 2006, when not a single Senator opposed strengthening and extending the Voting Rights Act (enthusiastically signed into law by President George W. Bush), and the 2016 election of a President whose Administration and party embraced disenfranchisement as an electoral strategy. Even before 2016, the Supreme Court was steadily eroding voting rights, led by a Chief Justice deeply rooted in voter suppression.
We hope presenting the defeats American democracy has suffered alongside our victories may better illuminate our complex history and the fragility of our rights. We’ve come a long way, but we have much further to go. The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States by Alexander Keyssar is our primary source and recommended read for those who wish to dig deeper.
U.S. Constitution (1787). Contains no federal voting rights. States decide who enjoys the privilege of voting: land-owning white men age 21 years and older. Presidential elections are made explicitly anti-democratic, and slave states are given disproportionate power in selecting the President.
More White Men Gain the Vote (1792-1856). As more states join the original 13, less-wealthy white men are enfranchised, starting with New Hampshire in 1792. North Carolina is the last state to remove property requirements in 1856.
Religious Requirements End (1828). Maryland becomes the last state to mandate Christian conformity in order to vote.
Civil Rights Act of 1866. All people born in the U.S. enjoy birthright citizenship, although not necessarily voting privileges.
15th Amendment (1870). Citizens cannot be denied the vote based on race. Despite the Amendment, discriminatory practices were used to prevent Blacks from voting, and Indigenous people remain voteless.
Native Americans Excluded from Voting (1876 and 1884)
The Supreme Court rules (1876) that Native Americans are not citizens with protections of the 14th Amendment and voting rights. The Court went even further in disenfranchising Native American in Elk v. Wilkins (1884). Read more on the evolution of native voting rights.
Direct Democracy (1898). South Dakota becomes the first state to enable citizens to make law via initiative and referendum.
Women Can Vote in Wyoming (1890). Upon statehood, Wyoming is the first to enfranchise women. Men outnumbered women 6:1 at the time of passage, so destination marketing may have played a role!
Indian Citizenship Act (1924). Grants Native Americans citizenship and voting privileges without disavowing their tribal affiliation, but 40 more years passed before Native Americans could vote in all 50 states. Learn more about barriers to Native voting.
McCarran-Walter Act (1952). Seventy years after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 blocked people of Chinese ancestry from becoming citizens. Asian immigrants are permitted to become naturalized citizens and vote.
24th Amendment (1964). Payment of poll or other taxes cannot be a requirement to vote.
Voting Rights Act (1965). Barred many forms of voter suppression and required states with a history of such suppression tactics to get Congressional approval before enacting new voting laws. (SCOTUS revoked in 2013, see below).
26th Amendment (1971). The voting age was reduced to 18 years and older.
Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act (1984). Accessibility of polling places is mandated.
National Voter Registration Act (1993). Mandated that states make registering to vote reasonably convenient.
Bush v Gore (2000). While the immediate impact was to select George W. Bush the winner of a disputed election, overlooked was the 5-4 SCOTUS majority declaring citizens have no right to vote for presidential electors. The Justices believe Florida’s legislators could ignore citizens’ votes and cast electoral votes as they wish. Also in 2000, federal courts deny voting rights to citizens in Washington, DC and U.S. territories.
Help America Vote Act (2002). Established federal voter protection standards and strengthened election integrity after mass disenfranchisement and irregularities in 2000 led to a disputed presidential election outcome and the SCOTUS selecting George W. Bush as the winner (Bush v. Gore).
Shelby County v Holder (2013). Despite the Voting Rights Act being reauthorized by Congress by an overwhelming majority (unanimous in Senate), five SCOTUS Justices strike down Section 5 of the VRA. This provision prevented states with histories of voter suppression from enacting new election laws without federal approval (known as preclearance). States quickly passed or implemented (within hours!) policies that previously had been blocked.
Rucho v. Common Cause (2019). In 2016, North Carolina Republicans re-drew Congressional districts so as to turn a near even split between Democratic and Republican voters into a 10-3 Republican advantage in seats. A federal court struck down the gerrymander on multiple violations of the U.S. Constitution. On appeal five SCOTUS Justices reversed, claiming challenges to partisan gerrymandering present “political questions” the federal judiciary lacks authority to adjudicate, no matter how unequally citizens are treated.
The Voting Rights Advancement Act would restore many key provisions the SCOTUS invalidated in Shelby. The bill was passed by the U.S. House in 2019. Senate Republicans refused to consider the bill, but hearings are likely in 2021 after Democrats won control of the Senate.
Pending Bills The For the People Act would expand voter registration and access, while also limiting states’ practice of removing voters from rolls for voting inactivity. The Act (also called HR1) also requires an independent commission to administer congressional redistricting. The Act also increases election security and transparency surrounding campaign finance. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would revise and extend protections of the Voting Rights Act while accommodating the Shelby v Holder ruling.
- A Leap Forward for Democracy is within Our Grasp (Our view and suggested actions re the “For the People Act”)
- The Missing Foundation for Democracy: An Affirmative Right to Vote
- 49 Ways to Disenfranchise and Suppress Voters
- Whose Vote Counts? A Netflix documentary series on voting rights
- So what is the Voting Rights Act?