History of Voting Rights
Voting is a right many people take for granted. Just look at the statistics; only 63% of Americans eligible to vote in the 2008 election actually stepped inside a voting booth. Though recent efforts have made voter registration simpler, things have not always been so easy -- the struggle for voting rights in America has a long and storied history.
In colonial America, voters were required to have a “stake in society,” meaning they either had to pay taxes or own a certain amount of land, and some colonies added their own restrictions onto this by excluding voters who followed certain religions. Voting rights varied throughout the colonies, and in some cities just 40% to 50% of white men were ruled eligible to vote.
Following the American Revolution, most states eliminated religious requirements for voting, but many still required voters to be taxpayers. Vermont was the first state to get rid of all property and taxpaying qualifications for voting and was one of only six states that allowed free African-Americans to vote. In the early 1800’s, men who didn’t own property and political parties seeking to gain more support, pressured states to expand voting rights. The property requirement was soon thrown out, and some states began to allow immigrants who intended to become citizens to vote.
As part of the Reconstruction Act following the Civil War, African-American men were given the right to vote. In 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment prohibited states from denying the right to vote based on race or previous condition of servitude, yet violence and fraud still kept many African-Americans from actually entering their ballots. Mississippi went the furthest in their efforts to keep African-Americans from voting, in 1890, they passed lengthy residence requirements, poll taxes, literacy tests, property requirements, cumbersome registration procedures, and laws disenfranchising voters for minor criminal offenses. During that time, just 9,000 of state’s 147,000 African-Americans of voting age were deemed qualified to vote.
Many Southern states continued to pass regulations and laws making it difficult for African-Americans to vote well into the mid 1900s. In 1940, only 3% of eligible African-Americans in the South were registered to vote. By the end of the 1950s, seven Southern states still had literacy tests and five states used poll taxes to prevent African-Americans from registering. In Alabama, voters had to provide written answers to a twenty-page test on the Constitution and on state and local government.
In the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. took action to bring national attention to voting rights. In 1965, he organized a voter registration drive in Selma, Alabama. For seven weeks, he brought hundreds of black voters to the county courthouse to register to vote. Over 2,000 people, including King himself, were jailed during this time for contempt of court, juvenile delinquency, and parading without a permit. Demonstrations continued and in 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed. It outlawed literacy tests and sent federal officials to Southern states to register black voters. At the end of 1965, 250,000 new black voters were registered, one-third of them by Federal officials.
An amendment granting women the constitutional right to vote was proposed in 1878, but 40 years lapsed before it was finally passed. In the meantime, states slowly began allowing women to cast a ballot -- Wyoming Territory was the first in 1869, followed by Utah, Idaho and Colorado. In 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment was finally passed declaring that: "The right of citizens to vote shall not be abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex."
Young people were one of the last groups to receive the right to vote. In the late 1960s, the Vietnam war fueled support for lowering the voting age. Young people argued that if eighteen-year-olds were old enough to be drafted into military service and sent into combat, they were also old enough to vote. The 26th Amendment was passed in 1970, preventing states and the federal government from denying anyone eighteen or older the right to vote.
America has come a long way, but the battle over voting rights isn't over. Debate continues today over whether convicted felons and illegal immigrants should have the right to vote and whether the voting age should be lowered to 17.
The importance of the youth vote
Already, the Millennial Generation is changing the face of politics. Forty-four million strong, you are the largest generation in U.S. history and represent more than 1/5 of the electorate. By 2012, you will account for 1/3 of the electorate. You are also the most diverse generation: 61% of you identify as white, while 17% are Latino, 15% are Black and 4% are Asian.
You possess a unique view of the world that has been shaped by such horrors as the terrorist attacks on that fateful day in September of 2001, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that followed, and the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina. These national crises have forced us all to look to our elected officials for leadership, and the decisions those leaders made have directly impacted all our lives.
You are the most socially engaged, politically informed generation in the history of our nation, and as such you understand this fundamental truth more than many: deciding our leaders means deciding your future and that of our nation.
So we urge you to vote! Now more than ever, your future is in your hands.
American Civil Liberties Union
Rock the Vote