Since America’s founding days, when voting was limited to white male property owners, to the transformative Voting Rights Act of 1965, to sweeping voting process reform introduced in the early 2000s, the right to vote in U.S. elections has seen massive change.
The original Constitution left voting rights to the states for a range of reasons, including a compromise over slavery and the fact that the concept of setting up a representative democracy was new, says David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University and the University of Minnesota School of Law.
“In 1787, the United States was in a unique position,” he says. “When you looked across the rest of the world you saw monarchies and principalities. You didn’t have this concept of voting rights. You didn’t vote kings in or out of office.”
In the 1820s, property qualifications for voting began to be eliminated, and amendments, including the 15th and 19th, granted the right to vote to Black men and to women, respectively, although they didn’t guarantee that right to all Americans. During the nearly century-long Jim Crow era, for example, intimidation, violence, literacy tests, poll taxes, grandfather clauses and other tools were used to prevent voting for minority populations in the South.
But the Voting Rights Act, Schultz says, pushed back those restrictions.
“The VRA did what Reconstruction did: It put federal muscle behind voting rights,” Schultz says. “... At the end of the day, if you as a state weren’t going to protect voting rights, you knew that the Department of Justice was going to take action and the Supreme Court was there to support them.”
After the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court decision found section 4 of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional, states that had previously had to clear election changes through the federal government were free to make changes on their own. That led to new waves of state laws enacting voter ID requirements, closed polling stations, restrictions on vote by mail and limited voting hours.
“We have two tendencies in American history regarding voting rights,” Schultz says. “One has been the gradual expansion toward universal franchise over time, but at the same time there has been a counterpush to disenfranchise.”
Below is a timeline of milestones in American voting rights history.
Constitution Leaves States in Charge of Voting
August 2, 1776: Declaration of Independence Frames Voters' Rights
June 21, 1788: Voting Left to States
The U.S. Constitution is adopted on this date, but in lieu of a federal requirement, it grants states the power to establish standards for voting rights. As a result, mostly white Anglo-Saxon Protestant males, who own property and are older than 21, are the only group allowed to vote. Article II establishes the Electoral College.
July 9, 1868: Citizenship Granted to All US-Born and Naturalized
Following the 13th Amendment, which prohibits slavery, the 14th Amendment is ratified, granting citizenship to all people "born or naturalized in the United States" and "equal protection under the laws," including formerly enslaved people.
Black Men, Women Get Right to Vote
February 3, 1870: Black Men Granted the Right to Vote
The 15th Amendment is ratified, granting Black men the right to vote and Congress the power to enforce the right. However, laws, including poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses, are enacted in mostly Southern states, suppressing Black voting rights until 1965.
August 18, 1920: Women Get the Right to Vote
After decades of protest and struggles for change, the 19th Amendment is adopted, granting American women the right to vote: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” However, its passage does not stop mostly Southern states from restricting minority women from voting through the passage of discriminatory laws.
Native Americans, Asian Americans Gain Rights
June 2, 1924: Native Americans Granted the Right to Vote
Congress enacts the Indian Citizenship Act, granting the right to vote to Native Americans born in the United States. Despite its passage, some states continue to bar Native Americans from voting.
1943 Chinese Exclusion Act Ends
In the wake of World War II when the United States and China had operated as allies, the Chinese Exclusion Act, which had barred Chinese from becoming citizens since 1882, is finally repealed. Chinese immigrants and their American-born families become the first Asian Americans eligible to naturalize and gain citizenship—and vote.
March 29, 1961: Washington, D.C. Residents Can Vote in Presidential Elections
The 23rd Amendment is ratified, allowing American citizens living in the District of Columbia to vote for president and vice president. Prior to its passage, D.C. residents could only vote for those offices with valid registration in one of the nation's states.
January 23, 1964: Poll Taxes Banned
The 24th Amendment is ratified, prohibiting the use of poll taxes in federal elections. "There can be no one too poor to vote," President Lyndon Johnson says during a ceremony announcing the amendment.
Voting Rights Act of 1965
August 6, 1965: Voting Rights Act
President Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act into law, banning literacy tests and enforcing the 15th Amendment on a federal level. It also provides for federal examiners who can register voters in certain jurisdictions. Facing a flurry of legal challenges, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds its constitutionality in a number of rulings from 1965-1969. In 1970, Section 5 is extended for five years.
July 1, 1971: 18 and Up Can Vote
The 26th Amendment is signed by President Richard Nixon, granting the right to vote to U.S. citizens who are 18 or older. Prohibiting discrimination based on age, it lowers the age from 21, largely in reaction to the number of 18-20-year-olds fighting in Vietnam.
August 6, 1975: Rights for Non-English-Speaking Voters
In addition to establishing a permanent ban on literacy tests and other discriminatory voting requirements, amendments to the Voting Rights Act are signed into law by President Gerald Ford requiring districts with significant numbers of non-English-speaking voters to be provided with instructions or assistance in registering and voting.
June 29, 1982: Voting Rights Act Extended
President Ronald Reagan signs a 25-year extension of the Voting Rights Act. Revisions also reverse recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court, making voting easier for people with disabilities and the elderly.
Accessibility Becomes Requirement
September 28, 1984: Voting Is Made Accessible
The Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984 is signed into law by Reagan, requiring polling places in federal elections to be accessible for people with disabilities and the elder. It also states that if no accessible location is available, an alternative way to vote on Election Day must be offered.
May 20, 1993: Voter Registration Through DMVs
Also known as the "motor voter" law, the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 is signed into law by President Bill Clinton. It requires state motor vehicle agencies to offer voter registration opportunities, states to offer mail-in voter registration applications, states to maintain current and accurate voter registration lists and opportunities to register to vote at certain state and local offices. In its first year, 30 million-plus voters update or complete their registration.
October 29, 2002: Help America Vote Act
Enacting sweeping voting process reform, President George W. Bush signs Help America Vote Act, mandating that the U.S. Election Assistance Commission improve and certify voting equipment, maintain the National Voter Registration form and administer a national elections clearinghouse with shared practices, among other items. It provides states with funds to meet the new standards and provisions.
Supreme Court Walks Back Voting Rights Act
June 25, 2013: Voting Rights Act Walked Back
In Shelby County v. Holder, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 vote, rules that Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional, holding that the constraints placed on certain states and federal review of states' voting procedures, known as preclearance, are outdated. Seen as a blow to civil rights activists, since the ruling, which affected nine states and several counties and townships, a federal commission found at least 23 states had enacted "newly restrictive statewide voter laws." These include polling place closures, voter ID laws, limiting early voting and more.
Voting Rights: A Short History, Carnegie Corporation
The Fight for the Right to Vote, Pence Law Library Guides
The 19th Amendment, U.S. National Archives
History of Federal Voting Rights Laws, U.S. Department of Justice
The Twenty-Sixth Amendment, U.S. Constitution Center
The Americans With Disabilities Act and Other Federal Laws Protecting the Rights of Voters With Disabilities, U.S. Department of Justice
New Voting Restrictions in America, Brennan Center for Justice