The right to vote lies at the core of American democracy. However, it has endured a complex and often contentious history since the founding of the United States in the late 18th century. The scope of Americans who are eligible to vote has expanded significantly over time, yet challenges remain in many areas.
The Origins of Voting Rights
The original version of the US Constitution did not discuss voting eligibility, and states initially restricted voting to white male property owners. As the nation evolved, the requirement of owning property began to fade away. After the Civil War, racial restrictions on voting officially ended with the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Women received the right to vote in 1920 with the Nineteenth Amendment. On paper, this ended the last major restriction on voting that dated from the Founding, but the story of voting reform was far from over.
Civil Rights and the Vote
While the states had ratified the Fifteenth Amendment, Black voters continued to face significant barriers to voting in many states. These obstacles included poll taxes, literacy tests, and other requirements that state legislatures devised to disenfranchise former slaves and their descendants. Immigrants and the poor also suffered from these laws. Nevertheless, they persisted until the 1960s, when the Civil Rights movement led to major reforms. The Twenty-Fourth Amendment and a US Supreme Court decision struck down poll taxes, while the 1965 Voting Rights Act targeted barriers to voting more broadly. One of its central provisions required state and local governments with a history of racially motivated voting restrictions to submit any changes to election laws to the US Justice Department for approval (preclearance).
Post-Civil Rights Era Reforms
Over the next few decades, the federal government continued to increase access to voting. The Twenty-Sixth Amendment lowered the minimum voting age from 21 to 18, while the Voting Rights Act was expanded to protect additional groups. These included the elderly, people with disabilities, and people with limited proficiency in English. Moreover, the National Voter Registration Act facilitated the registration process. Among other measures, it tied voter registration to driver’s license applications and required states to provide mail-in registration.
The 2000 Election
Serious flaws lurked in the election process, though. These were revealed in the 2000 presidential election, when the US Supreme Court stopped a vote recount in Florida and upheld the election of President George W. Bush. Mechanical failures and procedural inefficiencies and inconsistencies caused significant controversy, which spurred the Help America Vote Act of 2002. This law sought to streamline procedures, update equipment, and improve fairness in the election process.
Recent Restrictions and Controversies
In 2013, a backlash to the expansion of voting rights began when the US Supreme Court struck down the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act. Many states seized this opportunity to enact laws that echoed the restrictions struck down by the Act. Voting rights groups have mobilized to contest these laws, and the last decade has seen a wave of litigation surrounding the election process. Claims of election fraud also have increased in recent years, most notably during the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. Thus, the right to vote continues to be a hotly debated issue across the US.