Although the majority of Americans consider voting a guaranteed right in the United States, this right has a long and contentious history. Enfranchisement has steadily grown since the first election in 1788 but was unfortunately largely slowed by individuals or groups with strongly-held ideologies that opposed a broader franchise. According to historian Alexander Keyssar, the majority “of these forces or factors have long been recognized: racist and sexist beliefs and attitudes, ethnic antagonism, partisan interests, and political theories and ideological convictions that linked the health of the state to a narrow franchise.” Many opponents of universal suffrage used and continue to use unfair and nuanced rules to bar political participation from all Americans, despite the numerous laws and amendments enacted to the opposite effect. In coming blog posts I will speak to these specific voting-rights controversies. The idea of a series of posts is to help provide a better understanding of voting rights in the United States. But to start, let me give a brief history.
A Brief History of Voting Rights
Voting rights have been steadily expanding since the 1770s. At the time of the Founding, in 1776, only land-owning white men could vote in most states. It wasn’t until 1856, eighty years later, that the right to vote was extended to all white men regardless of property or religion in all states. In the general election that same year, approximately four million people, still only 17% of the total U.S. population at the time, cast their vote. Although this expansion was small, it marked the first of many acts and amendments which made the American electorate what it is today.
Only a few years later, the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, prohibited federal or state governments from denying men the right to vote based on race. Initially, African American participation in elections grew quickly and many African Americans were elected to political offices. Over time, however, many states developed loopholes to continue to disenfranchise Black Americans through hefty poll taxes and nearly impossible literacy tests. African Americans who passed the tests and managed to pay poll taxes still faced harassment and violence when they tried to vote. In theory, the second section of the 14th Amendment, which stipulated that Congressional representatives would be limited for states that abridged voting, should have provided an incentive for encouraging high voter turnout. The second section of the 14th Amendment was disregarded as the voting rights of Black Americans were narrowed over the next decades.
Literacy tests and other bureaucratic measures were consistently used to deny Black Americans the right to vote and evade the terms of the 15th Amendment. Black Americans waited for nearly 100 years from the ratification of the 15th Amendment to have their right to vote clearly secured when Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The Voting Rights Act required that new state voting practices and procedures be approved by the federal government. This was meant to remove the barriers that prevented African Americans from voting. The reforms immediately impacted voter turnout. By the end of 1965, 250,000 new black voters had been registered to vote. Over 73 million people participated in the 1968 presidential election, almost 41% of the country’s population.
Women’s suffrage was another slow process that spanned decades. In some states, such as New Jersey, women were able to vote in and around the founding. That right was nullified early in the nineteenth century when competing political parties “concluded that it was no longer to their advantage to have all ‘inhabitants’– including women, aliens, and African Americans– in the electorate”. New Jersey then reverted back to only allowing white men to vote. This struggle persisted throughout the nineteenth century.
Finally, in 1920, suffrage was granted to all women except Native American women through the 19th Amendment. This reform was a result of a decades-long movement of lobbying, petitioning, and picketing by women across the country. The amendment gave political representation to the 26 million women it enfranchised, fundamentally changing the understanding of women in society by empowering them to express their political preferences. It also dramatically changed the eligible electorate, which increased the growth of government and influenced the use of public resources. A paper by Yale Professor John R. Lott and University of Florida Professor Lawrence W. Kenny found that women’s suffrage led to the growth of government expenditures and more liberal voting patterns in the U.S. House and the Senate. Still, the amendment came under fire for failing to effectively enfranchise Native American and African American women who supported and lobbied for its approval.
The question of whether or not to enfranchise Native Americans was controversial into the 1920s. The legality remained murky due to the sovereignty of Native American tribes. At the time, only 8% of Native Americans were taxed and therefore eligible to become American citizens and exercise their vote. Yet in 1924, the Indian Citizenship Act granted citizenship to all Native Americans, including the nearly 50% of Native Americans who were not citizens. Although the Indian Citizenship Act was revolutionary, it too did not offer full protection of Native Americans’ voting rights. Some states, most prominently Arizona and New Mexico, adopted laws banning Native American citizens from voting. More subtly, Native Americans were also subject to many of the same poll taxes and literacy tests as African Americans until the Civil Rights Act of 1965 outlawed their use.
Over the course of American history, constitutional amendments and acts have incrementally expanded voting rights to men, women, African Americans, and Native Americans. Yet even today, 50 plus years after the Voting Rights Act, the right to vote is all too often narrowed. Some Americans continue to be disenfranchised, an issue that the John Lewis Voting Rights Act is currently under consideration to address, which I will delve into in future blog posts.