US Voting Rights

201611.01

Man putting ballot in ballot boxThe right to vote in the United States today is outlined at both the federal and the state level.

But early voting rights were considerably more constricted than they are today. Much legislation has passed to give every legal citizen the right to vote today in U.S. elections. In this post, learn more about the history of US voting rights and how that history has shaped the right to vote today.

Before America Was America

Initially, there were people from many countries who had established colonies in what is today called “The United States.” There were people from France, the Netherlands, Spain, Russia and other countries, as well as first African-born slaves and, of course, the Native American peoples.

When the Declaration of Independence was ratified in 1776 and America became America in fact as well as name, not all of these different people gained the right to vote. In fact, initially, only white (Caucasian) men who owned property were deemed eligible to vote.

Women were excluded, as were Asians, people of color, Native Americans and even white men who didn’t own property. For these groups, the road to the vote was a long and involved one.

Gaining the Vote

It took a long series of Amendments to rectify the early omissions in voting rights. Specifically, the following Amendments were drafted and passed on a federal level as follows:

– 1870, the 5th Amendment: This amendment gave the right to vote to people of color, people of races that were not Caucasian and people who were formerly classified as slaves.

– 1920, the 19th Amendment: This amendment restored the right to vote to women, who had previously lost it in 1807.

– 1964, the 24th Amendment: This amendment gave the right to vote to non-tax payers.

– 1971, the 26th Amendment: This amendment gave the right to vote to any qualified individual aged 18 or older.

Here, it is important to point out that these Amendments only governed who had the right to vote at a federal level. At the state and local levels, it was often a whole other story.

State-Level Right to Vote
During the time when these Amendments were being prepared and put to the vote, there were other restrictive or punitive laws in place further barring some groups from being able to cast their vote at the state or even the local level.

Since states had (and still have) the right to enact laws governing who gets to vote in statewide and local elections, these rights have often differed greatly from one state to the next.

For example, women and people of color were often barred to vote at the state or local level. So were people of certain religious backgrounds, felons, Native Americans and poor Caucasian people.

Even today, some such restrictions remain in place at the state and/or local levels.

Felons and the Right to Vote
For felons today, obtaining and keeping the right to vote remains problematic. Only two states permit felons to vote while they are still serving their terms.

In the other states, rights vary a great deal. In some states, felons who have met the terms of their bail bond or have served out their sentences can vote. In other states, nothing short of an individual petition can restore a former felon’s right to vote. In still others, a felon’s right to vote hinges on being released from probation and/or parole. And in other states, it is the type of felony that dictates whether the right to vote can be restored.

So for felons, where they live as well as what they’ve done to get convicted will greatly influence what voting rights they are able to access at any level of government.

Even in this brief overview, it is easy to see how complex US voting rights are now and have always been at the federal, state and local levels. Administering voting privileges is not an easy task for lawmakers and is subject to frequent revision.