The Right to Vote In The United States
In the United States, this right is granted to any individual who is able to fulfill the following requirements:
- You must be at least 18 years of age.
- You must be a citizen of the United States, by birth or by naturalization.
- You must have registered to vote within 30 days of the election.
- The right of convicted felons to vote varies by state.
These are the only legal restrictions denying people to vote in the United States. All ethnic minorities, women, and financially disadvantaged people in the United States have the right to make their voices heard. These rights were painfully won with the rigorous efforts of dedicated people.
The History of the Right to Vote in the United States
When the United States became a free and independent nation in 1789, one of the first decisions of the new government was to give citizens the right to vote. However, in those times, this precious right was given out to only a few people who met the strenuous restrictions of the time.
- They must be male.
- They must be at least 21 years old.
- They must be white.
- They must own property.
Women were denied the vote. So were people of color and anybody who lacked the financial resources to own property.
The Evolution of Jacksonian Democracy
The first serious challenge to this restrictive situation came in the 1820s. when the presidency was captured for the first time by a man born in poverty - Andrew Jackson. During this time, and in the decades that followed, citizens of the United States began to reject the idea that only people who owned land deserved to have a say in how the government was run. The local laws were struck down, one by one, territory by territory. By 1830, most local property requirement were gone. Finally, in 1968 Congress ratified the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. This amendment states that:
- All persons (at this point, they still meant white men) born or naturalized in the United States are considered citizens.
- The rights of citizens cannot be taken away without due process of law.
- This amendment also prohibited any leaders of the Confederacy from holding public office.
The Fifteenth Amendment Provides Sufferage for African - American Men - Temporarily
At the close of the Civil War, the United States Government put into place laws meant to extend suffrage to the newly freed African-American men. One of these measures, passed in 1870, was the Fifteenth Amendment, which stated that the right to vote could not be denied "on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude," In the Northern states, this amendment was enough to secure the civil rights of African - American men, but in the South, a rash of laws designed to remove those rights were soon established by local governments.
- Poll taxes, designed to prevent poor people from voting.
- Literacy tests, designed to take away the vote from men who had never been allowed to learn how to read.
- The "Grandfather Clause", which stated that citizens could only vote if their grandfathers had enjoyed the same right.
- In some cases, the statutes were even more direct. One Texas statute from 1922 declared that “in no event shall a negro be eligible to participate in a Democratic party primary election held in the State of Texas.”
The Jim Crow voting laws were reinforced with other laws that forced African - Americans to sit in segregated areas on trains and other public transportation. The Supreme Court upheld these laws in 1896 with their decision in the landmark case Plessy v. Ferguson, declaring that African-Americans were entitled to "separate but equal" facilities. The effect of the Jim Crow voting laws was chilling and effective, disenfranchising thousands of people. According to historian John Hope Franklin, "by 1910 the Negro had been effectively disfranchised by constitutional provisions in North Carolina, Alabama, Virginia, Georgia, and Oklahoma." The PBS website has an excellent interactive game that demonstrates the obstacles faced by a black man attempting to cast his vote in the segregated South.
The NAACP Fights Back
In 1909, concerned leaders eager to fight these restrictions against African-American men created the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, also known as the NAACP. After the Springfield Race Riot of 1908, a number of leaders, both black and white, came together to address the injustices being inflicted upon people of color in the United States. Famous names that worked together during the first days of the NAACP include founder Henry Moskowitz, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Mary Church Terrell. Over the next several decades, the NAACP worked tirelessly to reverse the voting restriction imposed by Jim Crow laws. In 1915 the Supreme Court declared the grandfather clause to be unconstitutional.
The most influential civil rights activist during this time was Thurgood Marshall, an African-American lawyer who successfully argued some of the most important Supreme Court cases regarding voting rights in American history. Among the cases argued by Marshall was Smith vs. Allwright in 1944. Lonnie Smith, an African-American man, sued Texas election official S.S Allwright for the right to vote in a state primary. The Supreme Court agreed that the local laws denied Smith his civil rights. Many people believe that this particular landmark case helped pave the way for Brown vs. the Board of Education ten years later. Still, despite such victories, Jim Crow laws disenfranchising African-Americans would persist until the 1960s.
Women Fight for the Right to Vote
In 1776 Abigail Adams sent her husband a famous letter, asking that he "remember the ladies" when drawing up the laws of the new nation. Her pleas fell on deaf ears; in the years following the United States revolution, each state voted against allowing women the right to cast a ballot.
After the Civil War, female abolitionists who had fought against slavery began to chafe at the restrictions to their own civil rights. With the passing of the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments, some of these activists began to feel that their own rights deserved equal attention. Among these activists were Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott.
Susan B. Anthony dedicated her entire life to the cause of female suffrage. In 1869 she and Elizabeth Cady Stanton founded the National Woman's Suffrage Association. Around the same time, Anthony and Stanton also began publishing a weekly newspaper, "The Revolution", which advocated for voting rights for women. Anthony was willing to go to great lengths for her beliefs; in 1872 she was arrested for attempting to vote in the Presidential election, and insisted that she would not pay the fine incurred upon her for breaking the law. Anthony also wrote The Susan B. Anthony Amendment in 1878.
Anthony died in 1806, but her life's work continued to bear fruit; in 1920 the document that began as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment was ratified as the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. Women - white women - had won the right to vote in the United States.
Selma, The Civil RIghts Act, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965
In the South, the struggle to give African-Americans the voting rights established for them by the Fifteenth Amendment continued, finally coming to a head during the Selma to Montgomery Marches of 1965.
In July of 1964 President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which outlawed segregation. However, the practice continued, as blacks who attempted to eat at white-only restaurants were physically attacked. Local leaders arrested African-Americans who attempted to vote, and one local judge made it illegal for citizens to even convene to discuss civil rights.
On March 7, 1965, 600 protesters marched out of Selma, Alabama, protesting the lack of voting rights for African-Americans. The police response was swift and brutal; in a reaction that became known as "Bloody Sunday", local officers beat the unarmed protesters with billy clubs and attacked them with tear gas. The cruelty of the measure sparked nationwide horror.
Martin Luther King Jr. led a second "symbolic" march on March 9 to Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of the original attack. There, he and 2000 followers prayed for a peaceful resolution to the problem. Local whites attacked and killed one of the protesters, a white Unitarian minister named James Reeb. The nation became even more concerned over the brutality taking place in Alabama. President Johnson came out in support of the protesters, and federal judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. approved a third march. He also demanded that Alabama Governor Wallace and local law officials protect the protesters as they marched.
On March 21, thousands of demonstrators left Selma and successfully marched all the way to Montgomery, led by Dr. King. By the time they reached Montgomery on March 24, the crowd had swelled to 25,000. President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law on August 6, and the final barrier to voting rights for African-Americans was abolished.
The 1965 March from Selma to Montgomery
The Vietnam War Creates an Awkward Dilemma
The final significant change to U.S. voting laws came in 1971, during the Vietnam War. Senator Edward Kennedy and other leaders noticed that young men of eighteen were being drafted to fight in the U.S. military, but they were not allowed to vote. Senator Kennedy argued that young people were becoming capable of exercising the right to vote intelligently because they were better educated than teenagers in previous generations. The Twenty-Sixth Amendment to the Constitution lowered the voting age to 18; it seemed that people felt a young man who might be asked to die for his country might deserve to be allowed to vote for the people who are making the decisions that so radically affected his life and future.
Throughout the history of the United States, brave and forward-thinking people have risked much and suffered much to defend the right to vote for all U.S. citizens. It is one of the primary obligations of a well-educated and engaged public that this right, so painfully won, be exercised with thoughtful consideration and appropriate dedication. The right to vote was not easy for all Americans to achieve; it must not be taken for granted.