Voting Rights



Although we think of the United States as a democratic republic beginning with adoption of the Constitution in 1787, relatively few people could vote at that time.  Much of our history has featured debates about who should have a say in government policy through the exercise of the right to vote.  In recent years, the debate has focused on election integrity and the ease of access to voting.  Join Active Minds as we explore this history and set the stage for the debates over voting rights that rage in 2021 and beyond.

Key Lecture Points

  • The question of who can vote is fundamental to our representative form of government and has played out as a political struggle from the earliest days of the United States.
  • Early on, property-owning requirements limited the vote to a relatively small group of white men.  No criteria were established in the Constitution, leaving voter qualification to the states.
  • As the franchise generally expanded through the nineteenth century, that did not extend to blacks, slaves, and women.  There was also strong resistance to allowing recent immigrants to vote.
  • While the Reconstruction amendments extended citizenship and voting rights to Black men, this was undermined by the Jim Crow era of violence and various requirements that essentially disenfranchised a huge majority of Black voters.
  • This eventually changed with the abolition of several of these practices and federal protection under the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
  • Separately, after an increasingly political campaign, women were granted the right to vote in 1920.  Later in the twentieth century, the vote was extended to those over 18 years old and to residents of the District of Columbia for Presidential elections.
  • The status of Native American suffrage was long linked to issues over their citizenship and tax-paying status.  Even with those matters now settled, there are still instances of discriminatory actions like English-language ballots, long distances from polling locations, and gerrymandering.
  • More recently, the issue of enfranchisement of ex-felons has become more prominent, particularly with the Florida action restoring the right to vote to ex-felons and subsequent legislative action making that contingent on payment of any costs still owed.
  • The 2013 Shelby County Supreme Court decision essentially rendered advance review of potentially discriminatory voting laws unenforceable.  The proposed John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act, if passed by Congress, would restore pre-clearance enforcement.
  • In the meantime, this tool has not been available to challenge state laws strengthening voter identification requirements and limiting voting access in various ways.
  • After the 2020 election, Democrats in Congress have renewed their push for national voting rights protection and expansion, while Republicans in state legislatures have proposed and enacted various measures to ensure election integrity.  The Department of Justice has already filed suit challenging the new Georgia law.
  • These actions, along with the redrawing of election districts after the 2020 census, means that the issues of how to balance broad suffrage with faith in the integrity of our elections will continue to play out in elections and judicial decisions over the upcoming years.

Exploration Questions

  • How does the history and current approach in the United States compare with other countries with which you’re familiar?
  • What issues around exercise of the vote continue to exist in the United States?
  • How have nonpartisan commissions worked to address issues like gerrymandering and malapportionment?

Reflective Questions

  • Given the polarization of United States politics in 2021, what issues around voting rights and access do you think Democratic and Republican leaders can agree on?  What differences are irreconcilable?
  • How do you think technology and social media impact current debates about voting rights?
  • What do you think the correct balance is between federal and state management of voting?

More to Explore

  • Voting Rights historical timeline Click here
  • Guide to history and current voting requirements Click here

Books for Further Reading

  • Glenn, Richard and Kyle Kreider.  Voting Rights in America: A Reference Handbook.  ABC-CLIO, 2020.  379 pages. A comprehensive guide to the history of voting rights in America.
    Click here to order
  • Keyssar, Alexander.  The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States.  Revised edition:  Basic Books, 2009.  494 pages.By a professor of History and Social Policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, this is an account of the evolution of suffrage from the American Revolution through 2008.  In telling this story, the author is also interpreting the sweep of American political history and the meaning of democracy.
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  • Schroedel, Jean Reith.  Voting in Indian Country: The View from the Trenches.  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020.  312 pages. Professor Schroedel ties the history of Native American voting rights to their long struggle for social justice, including case studies from the present day.
    Click here to order