This timeline provides milestones in U.S. history as voting rights have evolved.
Article II of the Constitution specifies that the president is elected by representatives to the Electoral College. The Electoral College is a group of people who are appointed from each of the states, through a process established by each state legislature. They assemble in January after the November presidential election and vote for the candidate who won the majority of votes in their state. Each state gets the number of electors equal to the number of its representatives and senators in Congress. The creation of the Electoral College gives more power to the smaller states, rather than letting the people in the most populous states always control who becomes president. In the event of a tie vote in the Electoral College, the House of Representatives chooses the president.
New Hampshire becomes the first state to eliminate the rule that only property owners and taxpayers could vote. Following New Hampshire’s lead, other states begin to shift away from such restrictions in an effort to open the electorate to all white males.
About 300 activists, including 40 men, gather for a two-day convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., to strategize how to obtain women’s suffrage nationwide. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, along with 60 other women and 32 men, sign and issue the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, modeled on the Declaration of Independence, which calls for equal treatment of women and men under the law and voting rights for women. Former slave Frederick Douglass addresses the crowd, showing unity between the anti-slavery and women’s rights movements. Two years later, the first National Women’s Rights Convention is held in Worcester, Mass., and attracts more than 1,000 participants.
North Carolina becomes the last state to eliminate the rule that citizens must own property to vote, effectively extending the right to vote to all white men, including migrants and transients, within the United States.
Disagreements over the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments and the relationship between women’s suffrage and the movement for racial equality split the women’s rights movement with allegiances divided between two main organizations: the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association. With the passage of the 15th Amendment (the first step toward ratification), which granted the right to vote to men of color and former slaves, but not women, the National Women’s Suffrage Association, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, broke with their abolitionist and Republican supporters. Accusing them of emphasizing civil rights for African Americans at the expense of women’s rights, Stanton and Anthony lobbied for a constitutional amendment to give women the right to vote at the federal level. At the same time, the American Woman Suffrage Association worked for voting rights state by state.
After ratification of the 15th Amendment, Congress passes the Enforcement Act, which creates criminal penalties for those who interfere with voting rights. The next year, Congress passes the Force Act of 1871, which provides for federal oversight of elections if individual states are deemed unwilling to hold fair and open elections on their own.
In Minor v. Happersett, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds a Missouri law that allows only men to vote. It rejects a claim by Virginia Minor, who was not allowed to register to vote, that the law denies her one of the “privileges or immunities” of citizenship guaranteed in the 14th Amendment. The Court says that while women are “persons” under the 14th Amendment, they are a special category of “non-voting” citizens and that states remain free to grant or deny women the right to vote.
Voting by freed African Americans dramatically changes the political climate in the southern states, enabling black candidates to win seats in Congress and the state legislatures. As part of an agreement that settles the disputed election of 1876, President Rutherford B. Hayes orders the removal of troops from the states still under Reconstruction. He hopes this move will bring the North and South together. However, the withdrawal of the troops and the end of federal oversight of elections means that many southern blacks lose the voting rights they had exercised since Emancipation.
In Ex Parte Yarbrough, also known as the Ku Klux Klan cases, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the convictions of Ku Klux Klan members who were tried under federal civil rights statutes for the beating and intimidation of people seeking to vote in a congressional election. The Court finds that the power to protect voters comes from the authority assigned to Congress in the Constitution.
Even though the states primarily had protected the right to vote in federal elections before the federal law, the Court says the federal government has the authority to protect voting in federal elections when necessary.
For the majority of the 19th century, voters obtained their ballots from their political parties. In response to accusations of ballot fraud and vote buying in this presidential election year, the city of Louisville, Ky., adopts the secret ballot system used in the Australian territory of New South Wales. The Australian ballot cast secretly was a single ticket of uniform size with the names of the candidates arranged in party groups. The following year, New York will become the first state to officially adopt the Australian ballot for its elections.
Two rival women’s voting rights groups, the National Women’s Suffrage Association and the American Women’s Suffrage Association merge to form one organization, the National American Women’s Suffrage Association. The new organization works for passage of a constitutional amendment to guarantee women the right to vote.
Southern states also impose literacy tests for voting, on the grounds that voters need to be educated to make good decisions. Because former slaves often have little education, and because white officials administer the tests, literacy tests exclude many African Americans from voting. In Williams v. Mississippi, the Supreme Court holds that Mississippi’s constitutional amendment requiring literacy tests does not violate the U.S. Constitution, as long as it is applied equally to all applicants.
In Guinn v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court finds unconstitutional Jim Crow laws, which helped enforce segregation in Southern states. Specifically, the Court declares unconstitutional the “grandfather clause” in the Oklahoma Constitution, which allowed illiterate men to vote if they could prove that their grandfathers had the right. As a result, illiterate white men could vote but not illiterate blacks, since as a general rule their grandfathers had been slaves.
Such regulations, which were intended to disenfranchise former slaves and other people of color, continued to persist as a method of circumventing the specific wording of the 15th Amendment well into the 20th century.
The U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Mosley extends its previous ruling in Ex Parte Yarbrough when it upholds a conviction under the federal Civil Rights Act. Election officials in Blaine County, Okla., had refused to count the ballots in a federal election in 11 precincts where there were minority voters. The Court said, “We regard it as equally unquestionable that the right to have one’s vote counted is as open to protection by Congress as the right to put a ballot in a box.”
The National Women’s Party organizes protests at the White House in support of women’s voting rights. Mrs. S.H.B. Gray of Colorado writes, “I have no son to give my country to fight for democracy abroad, and so I send my daughter to Washington to fight for democracy at home.” Police arrest the demonstrators and charge them with obstructing traffic. Alice Paul, the party leader, argues to one judge: “We do not consider ourselves subject to this court, since as an disenfranchised class we have nothing to do with the making of the law which has put us in this position.” Some of those arrested refuse to pay their fines and are sent to prison. After the party publicizes the harsh prison conditions, President Woodrow Wilson pardons the protesters in December 1917.
Upon ratification of the 19th Amendment, the National American Woman Suffrage Association establishes the League of Women Voters to encourage women to use their newly acquired right to vote. Today, the League promotes greater participation in the democratic process and advocates on a wide range of public policy issues, such as health care reform, campaign finance reform and environmental protection. The League of Women Voters also sponsors debates between candidates for political office, including presidential debates.
After a 72-year fight, the ratification of the 19th Amendment formally guarantees women the right to vote. It is quietly signed into law at a ceremony to which the press and suffragists are not invited.
During this period of racial segregation, many Southern states adopt the policy of collecting a poll tax from voters on Election Day. This tactic successfully denied the right to vote to many African American voters who could not afford the tax. In yet another case that disenfranchised African American voters, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Breedlove v Suttles that Georgia’s use of a poll tax did not violate the 14th or 15th Amendment. Poll taxes are regularly imposed until 1966, when the Supreme Court reverses itself in Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections.
As the United States enters World War II, the phrase “old enough to fight, old enough to vote” becomes a popular slogan among those seeking to lower the voting age to 18 years old.
Sen. Jennings Randolph (D., W.Va.) introduces an amendment to lower the voting age to 18. He goes on to introduce the amendment 11 more times during his 41-year career in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. It eventually passes in 1971.
Georgia passes a law to lower the voting age to 18 years old for state and local elections.
The Democratic Party in several southern states limits participation to whites only in primary elections. The Supreme Court in Grovey v. Townsend (1935) upholds such restrictions, reasoning that political parties are organizations composed of voluntary members acting in a private capacity. The Court reverses itself in Smith v. Allwright (1944), concluding that even though administered by a private party, primary elections are an integral part of the election process and therefore subject to the constraints of the Fifteenth Amendment.
In Colegrove v. Green, the U.S. Supreme Court looks at whether the redrawing of congressional districts by the Illinois state legislature that placed more citizens in one district than in others unfairly denied citizens the right to be equally represented in Congress.
Finding that the redrawing of district lines did not violate the Constitution, the Court rules that the way legislative districts are drawn is a political question best left to state legislatures, not the courts. The Court will address this issue in 1962 in Baker v. Carr when it says that questions of whether legislative line drawing is fair and constitutional could properly be decided by the courts.
Although literacy tests for voting apply to both blacks and whites, they exclude more African Americans from registration because of poor education and discriminatory administration that require African American applicants to pass more difficult tests. The U.S. Supreme Court in Davis v. Schnell hold Alabama’s literacy test unconstitutional as it is clearly intended to deny the vote to African Americans and thus violates the Fifteenth Amendment.
The Federal Voting Assistance Act is passed to assist members of the military with voter registration and voting while stationed overseas. Since voting rules are generally set at the state level, the act recommends but does not guarantee absentee registration and voting by members of the military, federal employees living outside the U.S. and civil service members. Adoption of the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act in 1986 now guarantees nearly all U.S. citizens temporarily residing abroad the right to register and vote.
In response to low voter registration among African Americans, President Dwight D. Eisenhower proposes the Civil Rights Act of 1957 — the first since Reconstruction. The law creates the Civil Rights Commission to investigate acts of interference with citizens’ right to vote and to monitor other civil rights abuses. Civil rights leaders complain that the law is weakened because it provides for violators to be tried locally, meaning that those attempting to disenfranchise blacks would gain a sympathetic jury.
In Lassiter v. Northampton County Board of Elections, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds North Carolina’s requirement that all voters pass a literacy test to be qualified to vote. Finding that the rule is consistent with the 14th, 15th and 17th Amendments, the Court rules that the states have long been held to have broad powers to determine the conditions under which voting rights may be exercised.
Although the Court notes that state standards cannot be discriminatory or go against any restriction that Congress has imposed, it finds that states may reasonably impose requirements based on residence, age, and criminal record. Similarly, the Court holds, a state may consider the ability to read and write in determining the qualifications of voters.
The 23rd Amendment grants people in the District of Columbia the right to vote in presidential elections. The District of Columbia is to have electoral votes equal to the number it would have if it were a state, but no more than the least populated state.
At issue in Baker v. Carr is Tennessee’s use of 60-year-old district boundaries for the election of state legislative seats, despite the fact that the districts no longer reflected the distribution of the population. By maintaining old district boundaries, the state allotted rural citizens, who were mostly white, greater proportional representation than their counterparts in the growing cities, where ethnic minorities and blacks primarily lived.
Charles Baker, who filed the lawsuit against Joe Carr, the state official in charge of elections, said the state’s failure to break up growing districts diluted his vote in violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Reversing its earlier ruling in Colegrove v. Green, the Supreme Court agrees that the issue could be resolved by the courts rather than leaving the matter solely in the hands of state legislatures. After Baker, a number of lawsuits contest legislative redistricting.
Responding to civil rights protests in the South, Congress passes the Civil Rights Act of 1964 after a lengthy filibuster by southern senators. The law prohibits discrimination in public accommodations, employment, education, and governmental services. The act also strengthens the Fifteenth Amendment by prohibiting discrimination in voting and makes voting requirements more uniform.
After ratification of the 24th Amendment, Virginia amends its poll tax law. Voters can either pay the poll tax or file a “certificate of residency” proving they had lived in the state six months before the election. In Harman v. Forssenius, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that this burden of proving residency so far ahead of an election is unconstitutional and violates the 24th Amendment.
Finding that federal anti-discrimination laws, particularly the Civil Rights Act of 1964, are not sufficient to overcome the resistance by state officials to enforce the 15th Amendment (as soon as one discriminatory practice is struck down, states impose a new one), Congress adopts this comprehensive voting rights law. The legislation, which President Lyndon Johnson signs into law on Aug. 6, 1965, temporarily suspends literacy tests and provides for the appointment of federal examiners (with the power to register qualified citizens to vote) in voting districts across the nation. Under this law, any racially discriminatory act that prevents Americans from voting is prohibited. After its passage, the voting rate for African Americans will increase rapidly.
In Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, the U.S. Supreme Court overrules its decision in Breedlove v. Suttles, declaring that the use of a poll tax at state elections is unconstitutional. The Court holds that such “invidious discrimination” based on economic status violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. As a result of this ruling and the earlier passage of the 24th Amendment, poll taxes cannot be used in either federal or state elections.
President Richard Nixon signs into law amendments to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that make permanent the ban on racial discrimination in voting and lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 for all federal, state and local elections.
In addition, the changes extend, for five more years, Section 5, which gave the Justice Department extra power to eliminate voting discrimination in mainly Southern states and required states to secure approval of the U.S. attorney general before implementing new voting practices. Section 5 is extended again in 1975 and 1982.
The 26th Amendment is added to the Constitution, permanently lowering the voting age for all elections to 18.
In Richardson v. Ramirez, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that California’s state constitutional provision that denies the right to vote to convicted felons does not violate the equal protection clause of the Constitution. Interpreting the lesser known second clause of the 14th Amendment, the Court reasons that the framers could not have intended the clause to prohibit such laws if they excluded felons from being counted when figuring congressional representation. Today, most states have differing policies on felon voting rights: Some states permanently deny convicted felons the right to vote; others suspend voting rights during incarceration or for a specified period after release from prison.
After the Watergate scandal and President Richard Nixon’s resignation, Congress attempts to weed out corruption in political campaigns by amending the Federal Election Campaign Act. Among other things, the law establishes the Federal Elections Commission as an independent regulatory agency with the responsibility of administering campaign finance laws affecting federal elections and overseeing public funding of presidential elections. The amendments impose strict limits on the amount of money an individual can contribute to a single campaign and requires reporting of contributions above a certain amount.
The Overseas Citizens Voting Rights Act takes effect. It guarantees all citizens living outside the United States the right to register and vote by absentee ballot, regardless of whether they have a U.S. home address.
The case Mobile v. Bolden is a setback for voting rights advocates after the U.S. Supreme Court rules that any constitutional claim that a legislative district dilutes the power of minority votes in violation of the Voting Rights Act must include proof of a racially discriminatory purpose (i.e., that the legislature specifically intended to discriminate on the basis of race.) This requirement is widely seen as making such claims far more difficult to prove.
The Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act requires that polling places used for federal elections be physically accessible to people with disabilities. It also requires states to make available registration and voting aids for disabled and elderly voters.
Administered by the Federal Voting Assistance Program under the Department of Defense, the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act combines the rights found in the Federal Voting Assistance Act of 1955 and Overseas Citizens Voting Rights Act of 1975. The law guarantees the right to register and to vote to members of the armed forces, the merchant marine and civilian citizens living abroad. It also provides for the creation of a Federal Post Card Application for registering and absentee voting.
The Americans With Disabilities Act revolutionizes the role of government in protecting the rights of Americans with disabilities. Expanding on rights guaranteed in the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act, the law expands the responsibilities of state and local election officials to ensure that all disabled Americans are able to register and vote.
Commonly referred to as the Motor Voter Act, the National Voter Registration Act allows American citizens to register to vote when they are issued a driver’s license. Intended to boost the number of Americans who register, the law also requires states to create mail-in registration forms and to accept national registration forms created by the Federal Elections Commission. In the first full year after implementation, more than 11 million new voters had registered to vote.
Passed in response to the voting problems of the 2000 election, the Help America Vote Act is a federal law that requires significant reforms in the election process. Signed into law by President George W. Bush, the act includes national mandates that require state and local governments to keep a single list of registered voters, better educate voters and election workers and which specify the type of voting equipment that can be used.
The Brennan Center for Justice and New York University’s School of Law files a class-action suit on behalf of 600,000 disenfranchised Florida citizens against an 1868 Florida law that permanently took away convicted felons’ right to vote — only one in seven states do so. They believe that the law is discriminatory in intent because it disproportionately affects African Americans, and, therefore, it violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause and the Fifteenth Amendment’s prohibition of discriminating against voters by race. In the case of Johnson v. Bush (2005), the U.S. Court of Appeals upholds the law on the grounds that it applies to all felons regardless of race.
In 2003, the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature redrew lines for its 32 congressional districts. The redistricting plan replaced a court-drawn map, which was enacted after the 2000 census. Various plaintiffs challenged the new map on the grounds that it violated the one-person, one-vote requirement, constituted impermissible political gerrymander, diluted the votes of people of color in violation of the Voting Rights Act, and violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The U.S. Supreme Court decides in League of United Latin American Citizens v. Perry in 2006 that the new map limited the rights of 100,000 Hispanic voters by lumping them into a Republican district. This one district aside, however, it allows the new map to stand. Significantly, the Court determines that states can redraw their congressional districts at their discretion.
Reintroduced in the 110th Congress, the D.C. Voting Rights Act grants the District of Columbia a seat in the House of Representatives. The bill is essentially the same as proposed legislation that obtained bipartisan support during the 109th Congress. During a September 2006 hearing before a Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, legal scholars and lawmakers express unanimous consent that denying D.C. residents a vote in Congress is a problem that must be corrected. The D.C. Voting Rights Act also passes the House Committee on Government Reform in May 2006 by a vote of 29-4.
After the 2010 elections, more than a dozen states enacted laws that require voters to provide a photo ID at the polls, shorten early voting periods or restrict voter registration efforts. Republicans, who took control of many legislatures in 2010, say the laws will curb voter fraud. Democrats say the new laws are meant to deter possible Democratic voters, such young people, the elderly and minorities. Challenges in state and federal courts lead to rulings that, for the most part, strike down the new laws.
The U.S. Supreme Court rejects a request by Texas Democrats to allow all of the state’s 16 million registered voters to vote by mail during the coronavirus pandemic. Voting by mail in Texas is generally limited to those 65 or older or those with a “sickness or physical condition” that prevents voting in person. Texas Democrats made the emergency ruling request while the original case is tied up at the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Justice Sonia Sotomayor urged the lower court to consider the case “well in advance of the November election.”
By a 6-3 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds voting restrictions in Arizona. The case, Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, addressed two kinds of voting limits: One required election officials to discard ballots cast at the wrong precinct; the other made it a crime for campaign workers, community activists and most other people to collect ballots for delivery to polling places. The law made exceptions for family members, caregivers and election officials. The larger message of the ruling was that the Voting Rights Act of 1965, hobbled after the Supreme Court in 2013 effectively struck down its central provision, retains only limited power to combat voting restrictions said to disproportionately affect minority voters’ access to the polls.