Voting Rights in America

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Voting is a fundamental pillar of democracy in America. Over time, it has served as a barometer, indicating how well we uphold the claim in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal”. The narrative of voting rights in America unfolds like a gripping saga, complete with triumphs and setbacks. We can trace the evolution of suffrage from its humble beginnings in the early 1600s to its zenith in 1971, allowing all citizens aged 18 and older to vote. This struggle illustrates the relentless pursuit of equality and justice that ultimately extended the franchise to all citizens, regardless of race, gender, or socioeconomic status. Equality in our rights has made headline news more times than any other single issue.

At times, this journey has seen progress and enlightenment, with landmark legislation securing rights for marginalized groups. Other times, it has been fraught with challenges and obstacles. The history of voting rights in America is marred by instances of voter suppression, disenfranchisement, and systemic barriers that have sought to undermine the principle of equal representation. From poll taxes and literacy tests to gerrymandering and voter fraud, efforts to suppress certain segments of the population from exercising their right to vote have persisted throughout history.

Yet, despite these challenges, the story of voting rights in America is one of resilience and determination. It is a testament to the unwavering resolve of individuals, communities, and states to fight for their rights and demand equal participation in the democratic process. Each victory, no matter how small, represents a triumph of justice over injustice and a step forward on the path toward a more inclusive society. To illustrate this epic saga, perhaps the voting laws throughout America’s history will tell the story best.

We are often led to believe that voting rights in Colonial America were limited to a privileged few. While that was certainly the case during much of the 1700s, the history of voting in the 1600s may surprise you. Voting laws during this period paint a different picture than what we are accustomed to hearing in modern narratives. This article will touch briefly on only a few of the voting laws that were enacted over nearly 400 years, starting in the year 1619.

1619: Under the new Great Charter, the first representative assembly in English America convened in Jamestown’s church on July 30. Twenty-two representatives were elected to the House of Burgesses by “all inhabitants” from each of the eleven settlements, “that they might have a hand in the governing of themselves.” (Governor George Yeardley, Proclamation, May 1619) All inhabitants meant landowners and non-landowners alike. There was no restriction on race, religion, sex, property, or social status. Indentured servants could not vote until they had completed their indenture (three to seven years), after which they would become a freeman. A freeman was an inhabitant who was not bound to indentured (contractual) servitude.

Sidenote: This is an interesting and important point because the 1619 Project, and other modern narratives, have led people to believe that this is when slavery began in America. As you will see later, it was not. Since Britain had laws against slavery, the people who arrived as slaves disembarked as indentured servants. Once they worked off their indenture, they were free and given land of their own.

1621: Virginia divides the House of Burgesses into two chambers, the General Assembly to be “respectfully chosen by the inhabitants” (Article IV) of each community. There was no restriction on race, religion, sex, property, or social status.

1646: The Virginia House of Burgesses passed a law punishing those who failed to vote.

“Freemen soever, having lawful summons of the time and place for election of Burgesses, that shall not make repairs accordingly, Such person or persons unless there be lawful cause for the absenting himself shall forfeit 100 lb. of tobacco for his non appearance, freemen being covenant. Servants being exempted from the said fine, to be levied by distress. . . .” (Virginia House of Burgesses, ACT XIX, 1646)

The act stipulates that servants were exempted from the fine, likely because they had no property to pay a fine but would be punished by “distress.” This implies that indentured servants could vote. There was no restriction on race, religion, sex, property, or social status.

1655: The Virginia House of Burgesses stipulates that only the head of a household, then referred to as “housekeepers,” can vote.

“That all housekeepers whether freeholders, lease holders, or otherwise tenants, shall only be capable to elect Burgesses. . . .” (Virginia House of Burgesses, ACT VII, 1655)

The act also specifies that the sheriff of each settlement must give notice “to all persons interested in elections” within a specific timeframe. This was done so people were not disenfranchised by being unaware of an election.

Again, there was no restriction on race, religion, sex, property, or social status to vote, in that the act did not specify any of those classifications as requirements to be the head of a household.

1656: Virginia repeals the head of household restriction and opens voting to all free people.

“We conceive it something hard and unagreeable to reason that any persons shall pay equal taxes and yet have no votes in elections, Therefore it is enacted by this present Grand Assembly, That so much of the act for choosing Burgesses be repealed as excludes freemen from votes. . . .” ( Virginia House of Burgesses, ACT XVI, 1656)

1670: Virginia restricts the right to vote for property owners only. The reasoning was that they thought other voters caused too much “tumult” in elections. However, there was still no restriction on race, religion, sex, or social status.

“WHEREAS the usual way of choosing burgesses by the votes of all persons who having served their time are freemen of this country who having little interest in the country do oftner make tumults at the election to the disturbance of his majesties peace, then by their discretions in their votes provide for the conservation thereof, by making choice of persons fitly qualified for the discharge of so great a trust, And whereas the lawes of England grant a voyce in such election only to such as by their estates real or personal have interest enough to tie them to the endeavour of the public good; It is hereby enacted, that none but freeholders and housekeepers who only are answerable to the publique for the levies shall hereafter have a voice in the election of any burgesses in this country. . . .” (Virginia House of Burgesses, ACT III, 1670)

1699: Virginia restricts women and those under twenty-one from voting.

“. . . no woman sole or covert [married], infants under the age of twenty one years, or recusant convict being freeholders shall be enabled to give a vote or have a voice in the election of burgesses. . . .” (Virginia House of Burgesses, ACT II: An Act for Prevention of Undue Election of Burgesses, 1699)

1723: Virginia restricts all free blacks and Native Americans from voting.

“. . . no free Negro, Mulatto or Indian whatsoever shall have any vote at the Election of Burgesses or any other Election whatsoever.” (Virginia House of Burgesses, An Act Directing the Trial of Slaves, Committing Capital Crimes; and for the More Effectual Punishing Conspiracies and Insurrections of Them; and for the Better Government of Negros, Mulattos, and Indians, Bond or Free, 1723)

This officially marks the year in which voting in Virginia was restricted to white property-owning males only. Rights that were once open to all inhabitants in 1619 would now take more than a century to restore to all people in Virginia.

For the next 50 years, voting rights were primarily limited to white male property owners. Then in 1777, there was a glimmer of light. Vermont became the first state to provide for universal male suffrage in its constitution and outlaw slavery. In 1789 the United States Constitution went into effect. It did not prohibit anyone from holding office or voting based on property, race, sex, etc. Voting qualifications were left to the individual states to decide. For the next 80 years, the struggle for universal suffrage would be slow but steady.

A huge milestone occurred in 1870 with the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, which prohibited states from denying voting rights based on race. However, some states enact poll taxes and literacy tests to discourage former slaves from voting. Then, to prevent literacy laws from affecting other poor and illiterate people who were not former slaves, some states grandfathered in citizens who could vote previously, or if their ancestors could vote previously. The laws are designed to prevent former slaves from voting and no one else.

1872: Susan B. Anthony and fifteen other women were arrested in Rochester, New York for attempting to vote in the presidential election. A point of historical interest: President Donald Trump pardoned Susan B. Anthony on August 18, 2020.

1890: When Wyoming filed for statehood, it became the first state to grant women the right to vote. Women could vote in the territory of Wyoming since 1869. Other states soon followed: Colorado (1893), Utah (1896), Idaho (1896), Washington (1910), California (1911), Arizona (1912), Kansas (1912), Oregon (1912), Alaska (1913), Illinois (1913), Montana (1914), Nevada (1914), Indiana (1917), Nebraska (1917), New York (1917), North Dakota (1917), Ohio (1917), Rhode Island (1917), Michigan (1918), Oklahoma (1918), South Dakota (1918), Iowa (1919), Maine (1919), Minnesota (1919), Missouri (1919), Tennessee (1919), Wisconsin (1919).

1920: The Nineteenth Amendment passes. It granted suffrage to all women citizens (not all Native American and Asian women could become citizens). Notice that women could vote in twenty-eight states before the Nineteenth Amendment, in contrast to twenty-one states in which they could not. This illustrates the point that actions on the state level were affecting voting rights before sweeping national action took place.

1961: The Twenty-third Amendment granted national voting rights to the citizens of Washington, D.C. However, this only applies to presidential elections, because the District of Columbia is not a state and thus has no senators or representatives.

1964: The Twenty-Fourth Amendment guaranteed that the right to vote in federal elections would not be denied for failure to pay any tax.

1965: The Voting Rights Act of 1965 eliminated restrictions, such as poll taxes and literacy tests. It expanded voting accessibility by adding accommodations for voters with limited English, such as access to translators and ballots in multiple languages. It required the Department of Justice to oversee election practices among states with a history of voting discrimination, a practice repealed by the Supreme Court in 2013.

1971: The Twenty-Sixth Amendment reduced the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen.

This historical timeline highlights significant milestones in the ever-enduring struggle for equality. Voting rights are a cornerstone of freedom and can be viewed as a test of our commitment to equality as stated in the Declaration of Independence. Preserving this fundamental right should be viewed as a paramount responsibility in the present day.

From the earliest days of Colonial America to the present, attempts have been made that threaten the integrity of our right to vote. We are greatly blessed to be recipients of 400 years of struggle and several constitutional amendments that secure this right. But we must remain vigilant in safeguarding the right to vote and recognize its central importance in maintaining a free society. As we confront contemporary challenges, including voting fraud, let us draw inspiration from the resilience and determination of those who fought tirelessly to secure this right. By upholding the principles of fairness, inclusion, and equal representation, we honor the legacy of those who came before us and pave the way for a more just and equitable future for generations to come.

5 comments

Feb 04, 2024
John Baur

Thank you for speaking the truth about the early years pre- and post-Constitution voting laws. The 1619 Project is laced with lie after lie about the nation’s beginnings. Nobody is perfect, but we, as a nation, have made great strides in forming a more perfect union. The other aspect attached to voting for men is the military conscription required to vote that women don’t have. Men have earned the right to vote while women are granted privilege with it.

Feb 02, 2024
Daniel Hunt

Thank you for the history on voting rights. the Massive voter fraud occurring over the past few years have been eroding those rights.

I would also like to point out We don’t live in a democracy. We live in a constitutional republic. The two forms of government are fundamentally different from each other as explained by James Madison in Federalist Paper #10.

Feb 02, 2024
Susan Dabney

Britain didn’t outlaw slavery until 1833, some 214 years after 1619.

Feb 02, 2024
Susan Dabney

Britain didn’t outlaw slavery until 1833, some 214 years after 1619.

Feb 02, 2024
Lynn Wellman

Thank you for speaking truth about 1619 facts.

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