Americans’ civic duty of voting has long been an evolving process. While states have continued to determine requirements for voting throughout American history, the federal government has taken several actions that have altered those requirements in an attempt to create more equity and equality in the process. Today, in order to vote one must be a United States citizen, 18 years of age or older, and a resident of the state in which one votes. However, these requirements have changed throughout U.S. history.
Voting after the American Revolution
Following the American Revolution, the new country transitioned from a period of being under British rule to developing its own government. After the failure of the Articles of Confederation, the country adopted the United States Constitution in 1787. Outlined within Article 1 of the Constitution, the requirements for federal elections were handled at a state level. The right to suffrage, or the power to vote, was granted exclusively to white, land-owning men. Since they were at such an early stage of the republic, the founders believed these men’s economic ties to the country were valuable.
However, a growing number of men began to champion an expansion of suffrage during the early 1800s. Following a period that lacked political parties or choices for voters, the 1820s saw the return of a two-party political system, as well as a renewed interest in suffrage. White men continued to move west in search of available land, but many did not feel that ownership should be a requirement for voting. Many states would remove that requirement, opening the door for complete white male suffrage.
Voting after the Civil War
While the country celebrated the expansion of voting rights for white men of all economic levels, the electorate still lacked diversity. Gender and race still restricted the ability of many citizens living within the United States to exercise the right to vote. Following the conclusion of the American Civil War in the 1860s, the Radical Republicans controlled Congress. These men were primarily white Northerners who wanted to restrict the political power of the South following their rebellion against the U.S. federal government. As a result of the 13th Amendment, a large number of African Americans, who lived in the region, were freed from slavery, in addition to the many living in the North. Radical Republicans saw this as an opportunity to not only help their own cause, but to also extend the right of suffrage to African-American men. In 1870, the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, declaring that the "right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."
While the 15th Amendment granted African-American men the right to vote, the issue of citizenship needed to be addressed as well. The 14th Amendment classified anyone born in the United States a citizen, while also granting equal protection to those citizens. While this amendment became the basis for citizenship, along with the Indian Citizen Act of 1924 (this allowed for Native Americans to vote but did not enforce the right; it would take 40 years until all U.S. states granted full suffrage to Native Americans), it would also be cited more than any other in litigation. The 14th Amendment would also be at the center the civil rights movement that attempted to combat the segregation, Jim Crow laws, and outright voter discrimination African Americans faced for nearly a century after its passage.
African Americans faced Supreme Court challenges (Plessy v. Ferguson, 1898) that condoned separation of the races, as well as challenges at the polls. Having to pay a poll tax and needing to pass a literacy test were just some examples of legalized state discrimination that African Americans faced in their attempt to exercise their right to vote; in reality, many also faced threats of violence, lynching, and other scare tactics. It was not until the 1960s that African Americans finally saw the federal government reinforce their right to suffrage. After a series of speeches, sit-ins, and marches like those in Selma, Alabama, the 24th Amendment—which abolished poll taxes—and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 protected the right to vote for African Americans and others. The Voting Rights Act continues to protect the rights of the disenfranchised.
The Fight for Women’s Suffrage
Women were important supporters of the abolition movement in the mid-19th century as they saw parallels with their own inequality during the period. A women’s rights movement developed around the 1840s under the leadership of women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. At the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 they introduced the “Declaration of Sentiments,” which included a revision to the Declaration of Independence, that “all men and women are created equal.” While their attempts to achieve women’s suffrage were unsuccessful at the time, this proved to be an important step.
Wyoming was the first state to give women the right to vote in 1869, but it was not until 1920 that women would be granted the ability to vote nationwide. The Progressive movement’s reforms and women’s work in industry during World War I helped drive support. The National American Woman Suffrage Association’s (NAWSA) constant protests, campaigning, and marches finally gained support from prominent politicians, such as President Woodrow Wilson, following the war. The 19th Amendment was passed in 1920 and guaranteed all women the right to vote. It was a catalyst that led more women to become involved in politics and government.
Today, thanks to the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age for U.S. citizens by three years, 18-year-olds across the country can register to vote in both midterm and presidential elections.