Voting and the Constitution

At the beginning of this week, the deadline for registering to vote passed in a handful of states (For those of you in California, you still have until October 19th, although even if you miss that, you can register and cast a conditional ballot on November 3, election day). Lately, there has been a lot of talk about voting. I see dozens of ads that tell me to “Register to Vote!” every day. Voting is on everyone’s mind. While we could spend this time focusing on current voting issues and trends, I want to take us back to America’s founding to better understand how voting came to be such an integral aspect of our democracy.

When the Constitution was ratified in 1789, it was equally a revolutionary document and a product of its time. We see a glimpse of its revolutionary nature in the process of electing members of the House of Representatives. Article I, which outlines the rules for Congress, states in Section 2 that these members should be “chosen every second Year by the People of the several States” [emphasis mine]. To have direct elections of federal representatives was an extraordinary leap forward for global democracy and it is important to remind ourselves of how revolutionary this proposition was. “We the People” actually meant something here. Still, “the people” was a narrow group, largely excluding non-landowning white men, women, and Black Americans among other groups. This caveat reveals how just as the Constitution was revolutionary, it was shaped by its present world and perceptions.

Later on in that same Article of the Constitution, it states, “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof.” Here we see the political concept of federalism at work, that is, the separation of governing power between the national and state governments. Simply translated, this clause means that states get to decide the details of elections, including who was able to vote. Since laws at this time generally favored landowners specifically, and white men in general, most states limited voting to this group. (Interestingly, in New Jersey, many women were able to vote until 1807, when that right was revoked).

Over time, property restrictions were lifted in most states, and since the Constitution granted states the right to dictate who made up the voting populace, this meant that more people (white men) could vote. This led to “universal white male suffrage” largely dominating American electoral politics by the end of the 1820s.

It would still be about 40 more years before the federal government laid specific rules for who could vote in federal elections. Five years after the Civil War ended and the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in 1865, Congress passed the 15th Amendment in 1870, which stated: “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 race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Practically, this meant that Black men could now vote alongside white men in elections. Women were still left out of electoral politics. 

(A side note here: many people (and generations of historians) have often neglected to highlight the political lives of women before the 19th Amendment, but this does not mean that women were not politically active in the 18th and 19th centuries, it simply means that they did not vote. As with today, women were at the center of major social movements that brought real political change. So, just because women did not vote did not mean they were not political citizens, they simply exercised their political natures in more creative ways. Two great books to learn more are Mary Beth Norton’s foundational Liberty’s Daughters and Rosmarie Zagarri’s Revolutionary Backlash.

After almost a century of campaigning for suffrage, women finally were granted the right to vote by the federal government in 1920. The 19th Amendment, which solidified this right into the Constitution, stated, “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.” At least on paper, America was looking more like a full democracy, where all citizens could vote. 

Sadly, simply because a right is ingrained into the Constitution does not mean that it is freely exercised. From the end of the 19th century throughout the 20th century, millions of Americans were barred from voting through roundabout means. Literacy tests and poll taxes kept thousands of black Americans and poor white Americans from voting. Many immigrants could not vote because of local laws, and crude tactics of intimidation were conducted by white supremacist groups like the KKK to keep constitutional rights from turning into political power for many Black Americans during the fateful Jim Crow era (1876-1965). Due to the persistence of Civil Rights Activists in the 1950s and 60s, some of these clearly discriminatory laws were overturned through landmark legislation like the Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965).

The last major amendment on voting came in 1971. The 26th Amendment lowered the voting age requirement across the states to age 18. Now, if a man was old enough to be drafted into war, they were also old enough to vote. 

Today, with talks of the importance of voting coupled with talks of voter fraud and voter suppression, understanding this history is ever more important. Countless Americans have fought for the right to vote to be ingrained in our Constitution and it is a right we should not hold too loosely. The right to vote spans race, ethnicity, sex, and perhaps most timely, partisan-alignment. Wherever one falls on any of these categories, recognizing the Constitutional work that went into giving Americans the right to vote should encourage us to proudly take part in this pivotal part of the democratic process.