In 1787, the newly formed United States of America passed a resolution to put its Constitution into place. The Constitution granted white male property owners who were twenty-one or older the right to vote in U.S. elections, a precedent that has been significantly altered since the Constitution's inception. The right to vote in the United States has been sought after by many groups who view suffrage as a key element in a participatory democracy, and as Election Day approaches, it seems appropriate to take a look back on the way that voting rights have evolved over the past two and a half centuries.
Between the years of 1807 and 1843, voting requirements changed for the first time, largely because of President Andrew Jackson and his belief in universal white male suffrage. By the 1820s, most states had established a norm of white male suffrage for all men twenty-one and older, regardless of property ownership. In 1868, the 14th Amendment to the Constitution was adopted, which established a definition of citizenship that did not include African Americans and thus created a legal basis for denying them the right to vote.
However, this was overturned in the 15th Amendment, which was adopted shortly thereafter in 1870. The amendment prohibited the government from denying any man above the age of twenty-one the right to vote based on that person's race, thus granting the right to vote to the large number of freed slaves in the Reconstruction era.
The extension of suffrage to African American men was viewed by many as a step toward a more equal participatory democracy, but many groups still did not have the right to vote by the turn of the twentieth century. The Women's Suffrage movement, which had been in full swing as early as 1848 with the Seneca Falls Convention on women's rights, became all the more vocal about giving women the right to vote. Finally, in 1920, the 19th Amendment was passed, which prohibited the government from denying the right to vote to anyone based on his or her sex.
Many viewed the adoption of the 19th Amendment as the culmination of voting rights in the United States, but there were still several disenfranchised groups that sought to obtain the right to vote. Native Americans were granted suffrage in 1924, and after the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, literacy tests and intimidation tactics were prohibited, meaning that many minorities were no longer kept from registering to vote. The voting age was lowered to eighteen in in 1971 in response to protests during the Vietnam War that if soldiers were old enough to fight at eighteen, they should also be granted the right to vote.
Today, we all recognize that citizens of the United States can vote in U.S. elections when they reach the age of eighteen. What many do not realize is that there are still ongoing debates about who has the right to vote and who can be considered a citizen. Our increasing population of illegal immigrants yields many debates about the questions of citizenship, as do U.S. citizens living in territories like Puerto Rico, Guam, or the Virgin Islands. Homeless and disabled citizens still often face obstacles when registering to vote, and in most states, prisoners are not permitted to vote in elections. The United States has undeniably made significant steps toward universal suffrage and a truly participatory democracy, but there are still many changes to be made and questions to consider when determining who is allowed to vote in U.S. elections. We should keep these in mind as the nation elects its president next Tuesday.
— Sarah Russell is a senior in history. She can be reached at email@example.com.