The United States Constitution did not originally define who was eligible to vote, allowing each state to determine who was eligible. In the early history of the U.S., most states allowed only free male adult property owners (of any ethnicity) to vote. Women could vote in New Jersey (provided they could meet the property requirement) and in some local jurisdictions in other northern states. Freed slaves could vote in four states. Initially, men without property and women were largely prohibited from voting. By the time of the U.S. Civil War, most white men were allowed to vote regardless of property ownership.
Literacy tests, poll taxes, and religious tests were some of the state and local laws used in various parts of the United States to deny immigrants (including legal ones and newly naturalized citizens), non-white citizens, Native Americans, and any other locally “undesirable” groups from exercising voting rights granted under the constitution.
The Constitution, in Article VI, clause (paragraph) 3, states that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States”. The Constitution leaves the determination of voters’ qualifications to be decided by the individual states. Because of state and local discriminatory practices, over time, the federal role in elections has increased, through amendments to the Constitution and enacted legislation (e.g., the Voting Rights Act of 1965).
At least four of the fifteen post-Civil War constitutional amendments were ratified specifically to extend voting rights to different groups of citizens. These extensions state that voting rights cannot be denied or abridged based on the following:
- “Race, color, or previous condition of servitude” – (15th Amendment, 1870)
- “On account of sex” – (19th Amendment, 1920)
- In Washington, D.C., presidential elections (23rd Amendment, 1961)
- (For federal elections) “By reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax” – (24th Amendment, 1964)
- “Who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of age” (26th Amendment, 1971).
- Requirement that a person reside in a jurisdiction for an extended period of time (14th Amendment; Dunn v. Blumstein, 405 U.S. 330 (1972))
In addition, the 17th Amendment of 1913 provided for the direct election of United States Senators, increasing the representation of citizens. The US Senators were formerly elected by state legislatures.
The “right to vote” is not explicitly stated in the U.S. Constitution except in the above referenced amendments, and only in reference to the fact that the franchise cannot be denied or abridged based solely on the aforementioned qualifications. In other words, the “right to vote” is perhaps better understood, in layman’s terms, as only prohibiting certain forms of legal discrimination in establishing qualifications for suffrage. States may deny the “right to vote” for other reasons.
For example, many states require eligible citizens to register to vote a set number of days prior to the election in order to vote. More controversial restrictions include those laws that prohibit convicted felons from voting, even those who have served their sentences. Another example, seen in Bush v. Gore, are disputes as to what rules should apply in counting or recounting ballots.
As described below, voting rights reforms have significantly expanded access to the ballot for non-Protestants, non-whites, those who lack wealth, women, and those 18–21 years old.
A state may choose to fill an office by means other than an election. For example, upon death or resignation of a legislator, the state may allow the affiliated political party to choose a replacement to hold office until the next scheduled election. Such an appointment is often affirmed by the governor.
Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) was a Baptist minister and social activist who played a key role in the American civil rights movement from the mid-1950s until his assassination in 1968. Inspired by advocates of nonviolence such as Mahatma Gandhi, King sought equality for African Americans, the economically disadvantaged and victims of injustice through peaceful protest. He was the driving force behind watershed events such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the March on Washington, which helped bring about such landmark legislation as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and is remembered each year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a U.S. federal holiday since 1986.