Voting Rights History

Since the election is only 3 weeks away, I was wondering about the history of voting rights in the US.

As I understand it, in the early days of the United States, voting was limited to white men who also held property. However, as today, the laws then also varied by state. So the first question that arises is whether there were any voting restrictions based on national origin or religion on land-owning white men? Also, when could all white men, whether land-owners or paupers, vote in all states?

The last group to get voting rights in the US were African Americans in the deep South. That I know a bit about. But what about northern states or western ones? Also, in the age of slavery, could free blacks vote in the US?

Talking about minorities, for a long time Native Americans were considered sovereign, though usually without much in the way of rights, and hence not citizens. When did that change specifically regarding voting?

Did other minorities (Hawaiians, Asians, Mexicans, etc.) have any problems with voting rights?

Women got the right to vote in most democracies in the early part of the 20th century (the Siwss being the major exception as usual). I believe the 19th amendment gave that right to the women in the US in 1920. But didn’t some states allow women to vote in local elections even in the late 19th century?

Since the US constitution is one of the older democratic constitutions, it has some features which would never be put in a modern constitution.

One of those features is leaving voting rights to the states. This has some interesting consequences. The disenfranchisement of the Washington DC residents in Congressional elections is the first example that comes to mind. Why shouldn’t the residents of the city where Congress resides be able to vote for their own representatives? It just sounds crazy.

The electoral college is another strange idea left over from the 18th century. I don’t particularly mind the different weighting given to different states for the Presidential election. I would prefer popular election of the President with an instant runoff system, but in a federal system, some attention has to be paid to states as well. What bugs me is that the constitution allows a lot of leeway regarding the electors. State legislatures can, if they wish, nominate a slate of electors completely different in party affiliation from the popular vote in that state. Plus an elector is free to vote for whoever he wants regardless of the wishes of the voters of that state. These are big loopholes in the constitution.

While the Voting Rights Act improved the voting rights situation quite a lot, the US still doesn’t really give the right to vote to all its citizens. Over a dozen states bar felons from voting permanently. Most states have some form of disenfranchisement of (ex-)felons. The only exceptions are Vermont and Maine. Being from Pakistan, these laws seem to me to have a large potential for abuse. I believe in an absolute right to vote for all citizens. Anything less can be used by a corrupt justice system or government to disqualify its opponents.

While no one today would argue about giving the federal vote to non-citizens, it is not so far-fetched as some people suppose.

[T]he United States has a long history of allowing noncitizens to vote. Twenty-two states and federal territories at various times allowed noncitizens to vote – even as blacks and women were barred from the ballot box – in the 1800’s and 1900’s.

Concerns about the radicalism of immigrants arriving from southern and Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries led states to restrict such voting rights. By 1928, voting at every level had been restricted to United States citizens.

In recent years, there has been some movement towards giving municipal voting rights to non-citizens.

UPDATE: Spurred by Gary Farber, I have answered some of my own questions in the comments.

Author: Zack

Dad, gadget guy, bookworm, political animal, global nomad, cyclist, hiker, tennis player, photographer

17 thoughts on “Voting Rights History”

  1. Regarding your comment that African-Americans were the last group to get voting rights, I believe that is incorrect. They were allowed to vote since around the Civil War, 1867 or thereabouts in an amendment, though of course back-door tactics were used to prevent them from doing so. (Literacy tests and such.) Women, on the other hand, as you pointed out, did not get voting rights until 1922. In general, I have noticed that women tend to lag behind African Americans as far as getting many rights is concerned.

  2. I will hazard a guess about D.C. Restrictions on the District of Columbia may have ancient roots. You see, the founding fathers knew they were engaged in historic activities, and they tended to model and measure themselves against the great political heros of western antiquity. They believed themselves 18th century Ciceros, Cinncinatuses and Catos. They also feared the corruption and sources of corruption that these men opposed.

    During the Roman Republic and Empire, the elite class and even ordinary citizens of Rome exercised a tremendous amount of control over the policies of the Mediterranean spanning empire. Elite members of Rome’s society tended to “replace” various members of the government at regular intervals. Even the Praetorian Guard, the emperor’s body guard, was not above “replacing” emperors from time to time. The elites in Rome were not necessarily more wealthy than those in say Antioch, and the P. Guard was not a fearsome military unit. But, both were physically close to the center of power; so, they weilded “influence.”

    Ordinary citizens possessed a different kind of influence. To keep them from rioting, the government often needed to maintain a constant flow of goods, especially grain, from different parts of the republic / empire. The sword did not always work. Legions marched in Egypt and fleets plyed the Crimean coast to secure grain supplies from these fertile regions.

    The founding fathers might haved wanted to avoid such a situation in the new American Republic. They were quite conscious of the previous western experiments with democracy and were bright enough to avoid some of the old mistakes. Of course, things are different now.

  3. 18-21 year olds got the right to vote in 1971, I think. Also, EB on-line says that Congress decided a separate capital might be a good idea because of some veterans’ riots in Philadelphia and fears that what I guess you could call “the mob” might intimidate legislators.

  4. The “Potomac Site” for America’s capitol resulted from a congressional horse trade. Before the arrangement, all three great colonial regions (South, Mid-Atlantic and New England) vied for the prestige and expected economic advantages that accompanied the placement of a permanent capitol. The capitol actually moved from time to time.

    Then, the “Assumption Crisis” reared its strangely threatening head. Hamilton, one of America’s first economic geniuses, devised a plan to improve the fiscal condition of the government and country that involved assuming the debts of the individual states. However, a number of states opposed this particular measure, and southern states lead the resistance. To bring enough of the south around to the plan, assumption senators traded the capitol site and a little creative accounting for Virginia for the votes on assumption.

  5. Jennifer: I specifically mentioned African Americans in the Deep South. Most of them got to vote after the Voting Rights Act in 1965. African Americans got the right to vote in the 15th amendment (ratified in 1870) but these got eroded after Reconstruction ended.

    Women in Wyoming territory (and later state) could vote as far back as 1869.

    Captain Arrrgh: You are probably right about the founders’ reasons for not giving the right to vote to DC residents. However, the intervening centuries have proved them wrong on this count and a few others.

    Brian: It’s interesting that the lowering of voting age to 18 is recent when the education requirements mean that an 18 year old, unlike in the past, is not independent.

  6. Actually, D.C. residents have been allowed to vote for their own Congressional representative for quite a few years now. It’s just that the rep — who has always been Eleanor Norton, my imperfect memory suggests — has a vote that only counts in committee, not in general House votes. And, of course, there is no representation in the Senate, where it would make a huge difference. Since it’s not going to happen until a Constitutional Amendment can pass House, Senate, and a majority of states, and, for the forseeable future, it would be a guaranteed lock of two more Democratic Senators, don’t hold your breath waiting for that to pass (any more than an amendment to eliminate the Electoral College will happen, although I happen to also oppose that one, myself, as l last, clumsily, expressed here.)

    Norton has served since 1991.

    I note that the Wikipedia in this entry is wrong in stating the D.C. rep can’t vote in committee. I trust my own memory better than I trust the Wikipedia, particularly since the Norton entry has it right.

    I was going to express a bit of puzzlement that you don’t simply Google for the answers to your other questions, but I assume that the new baby is keeping you busy. I simply can’t understand why, of course.

  7. Gary: Thanks for the info and the links.

    Actually, D.C. residents have been allowed to vote for their own Congressional representative for quite a few years now.

    A representative who can’t vote on legislation isn’t exactly a real one.

    I believe the US is alone among the democracies of the world which denies any parliamentary representation to the residents of its capital. [sarcasm]Isn’t that an honor worth keeping? [/sarcasm]

    I was going to express a bit of puzzlement that you don’t simply Google for the answers to your other questions.

    Hey what would be the fun in blogging then? It’s just easier to be lazy. 🙂

    Answering some of my own questions:

    whether there were any voting restrictions based on national origin or religion on land-owning white men?

    As I recall, in some states, there were restrictions due to religion in the early days of the US.

    when could all white men, whether land-owners or paupers, vote in all states?

    I believe the 1828 Presidential election (Andrew Jackson won) was the first. According to another website, property and religion requirements were removed by 1830.

    About Native Americans: They got voting rights in 1947 according to one website. According to another website, the last state to enfranchise Native Americans was New Mexico in 1962. Native Americans were not considered US citizens until the Snyder Act in 1924.

    The Wikipedia page on US voting rights gives the following dates for different groups getting voting rights:

    • Landless white men: 1856
    • Non-whites: 1870 15th amendment
    • Women: 1918 (19th amendment was ratified in 1920.)
    • Native Americans: 1924 (Snyder Act gave them citizenship. Actual voting rights took a while.)
    • Adults 18 and over: 1971 (26th amendment; some states allowed 18 year olds to vote even earlier.)

    Another timeline of voting rights is here.

  8. Well, a lot of people (almost half) don’t go to college, and enter the work force at 18, so I wouldn’t make a blanket statement about whether they are independent. You also have people who basically pay their own way to college.

    The real issue moving things was the draft during the Vietnam War.

  9. Also, in the age of slavery, could free blacks vote in the US?

    There were black elected officials in the US during the age of slavery. Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island, New York and a number of other northern states had a nonracial franchise (although NY imposed a property qualification on black voters), and even North Carolina and Tennessee allowed free blacks to vote between the 1770s and 1830s.

    Property qualifications also varied widely from state to state; many states had eliminated them or adopted nominal taxpayer qualifications by the early 19th century, although there were holdouts until the 1850s.

  10. Brian: I didn’t mean to make a blanket statement. Just noticing a trend. But you are right, the Vietnam war was the catalyst for lowering the voting age in the US.

    I believe a number of countries lowered their voting age from 21 to 18 over the years. It would be interesting to consider what reasons were common in all the cases.

    Jonathan: There were black elected officials in the US during the age of slavery.

    I didn’t know that. I thought the earliest black elected officials were from the time of Reconstruction.

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