Historical Brief

Voting
Updated:
October 2, 2021
Published:
September 20, 2021
Introduction
Terms
1776: Declaration of Independence
1788: States' Rights in Voting
1789: 12th Amendment
1870: 15th Amendment
1920: 19th Amendment
1924: Indian Citizenship Act
1943: End of the Chinese Exclusion Act
1961: 23rd Amendment
1964: 24th Amendment
1965: Selma Marches
1965: Voting Rights Act
1971: 26th Amendment
1975: Rights for Non-English Speakers
1984: Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act
1993: National Voter Registration Act
2000: Bush-Gore Presidential Election Recount
2002: Help America Vote Act
2013: Shelby County v. Holder
2020: Election Turnout
2021: Brnovich v. DNC
Why this information is important

This section will help you understand the history that contextualizes the narrative, policy, and contemporary issues debates highlighted later in this topic guide.

Introduction

The Democratic process is woven into the fabric of the United States. In large part, it was the basis for a revolution. Elections are one of the most important aspects of creating and maintaining a healthy democracy, especially in a hyper-partisan environment. Today, some Americans argue that voting is restrictive to the point that it disenfranchises certain citizens. Others argue that our current voting system is vulnerable to fraud and corruption. This topic guide will cover both sides of the debate and give you the information you need to lead informed discussions and engaging activities.

Terms

  • Republic. A government where citizens hold the political power to elect representatives who are responsible to their constituents.
  • Democracy. A government where political power is vested in and exercised by the citizens.
  • Redistricting. The process of redrawing district lines every decade in conjunction with updated census data.
  • Gerrymandering. When electoral districts are drawn with the purpose of giving one political group an advantage over another, often resulting in districts with strange shapes.
  • Cracking. Breaking, or diluting, a voter demographic into multiple districts to ensure they would not be a majority in any district.
  • Packing. Concentrating supporters of one political affiliation into one district to ensure consistent and landslide victories. 
  • Stacking. Creating districts with a certain proportion of high-income and low-income voters with expectations that higher-income voters turnout in larger numbers.
  • Voter Disenfranchisement. The revocation or deprivation of the right to vote.
  • Electoral Fraud. Various methods can interfere with the outcome of an election: impersonation fraud at the polls, false registration, duplicate voting, fraudulent use of absentee ballots, ineligible voting, and buying votes.
  • Absentee Ballots. A paper ballot submitted by a voter who is unable to vote on Election Day, and it must be requested prior to the election with valid reasoning, unlike mail-in voting.
  • Mail-In Ballots. Mail-in votes are ballots sent to eligible voters without a request or valid reason. To prevent mail-in voters from also voting in person, votes cast by mail are opened and counted after Election Day votes are cast.
  • Eligible Voters. Any person who meets the requirements under federal and state laws to vote. Conditions include age, criminal status, and residency requirements.
  • Registered Voters. A person who has recorded their name with the voting registrar and is legally entitled to cast a vote.
  • Voter Turnout. The percentage of eligible voters who cast a ballot on election day.

Election Methods

  • Simple Majority. Simple majority, or popular vote, is the voting method in which the candidate with the most number of votes wins. The candidate does not necessarily need to exceed 50 percent of the votes to win, as long as they have the most
  • The Electoral College. An election method in which voters cast their votes for president and vice president, but the election is not determined by popular vote. Instead, each state is allocated a predetermined number of electors who each possess a vote. In the United States, the number of electors is determined by the number of US House representatives in a state, plus an additional two votes to account for Senators. The candidate who wins the popular vote in each state is awarded all the electoral votes allocated to that state. The election winner is the candidate with the most electoral votes.
  • Ranked Choice Voting. Also known as preferential voting, ranked choice voting is when voters use a ranked ballot and write candidates on the ballot on an ordinal scale (1st, 2nd, 3rd). If a candidate has more than 50 percent of first place votes, they win the election. However, if no one does, the candidate with the lowest number of first-preference votes is eliminated and the votes are redistributed until a majority appears. Alaska and Maine are the only states to use ranked choice voting in statewide elections and presidential elections.

History

1776: Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence stated, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.” It emphasized a government whose political power is dependent on the approval, or the vote, of the people. In other words, it declared the United States as a democracy, a state where political power is vested in the people, not a monarch.

1788: States’ Rights in Voting

Anti-Federalists in the Constitutional Convention opposed a powerful, centralized federal government, believing it would lead to tyrannical rule. To ensure the security and longevity of state’s rights, they amended the Bill of Rights to grant states certain rights that the federal government cannot abridge. One of the provisions included the power for states to establish their own voting rights. These included, but were not limited to, racial, religious, and age eligibility requirements to vote. The first demographic allowed to vote were Anglo-Saxon Protestant males who were property owners and at least 21 years of age.

1789: 12th Amendment

The Constitution was amended to include the 12th Amendment, which established the Electoral College system. The amendment outlined a process for state electors to convene after general elections and each place a ballot for president and vice president on behalf of their constituents. The number of electors is the combined total of House representatives and Senators. For example, New York has 27 representatives and two senators; thus, 29 electoral votes.

1870: 15th Amendment

The landmark 13th, 14th, and 15th Constitutional Amendments, also known as the Reconstruction Amendments, enforced sweeping institutional changes in the United States, particularly in the American South. The amendments emancipated slaves from servitude, guaranteed citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and prohibited the disenfranchisement of voters on the basis of race. The 15th Amendment, though still incredibly monumental, created many loopholes that eventually were exploited by opponents of the law.

1896: Grandfather Clauses in the South

A few decades after the 15th Amendment was instated, Grandfather Clauses spread across the South and severely impacted black voter registration and representation. Grandfather Clauses were policies that required voter literacy tests and property ownership unless an individual was “grandfathered in” (had an ancestor who voted in an election prior to 1867). Each provision served to systemically disadvantage black voters; as slaves, African Americans had no access to an education, could not own property, and were prohibited from voting prior to 1870. Thus, it became incredibly difficult for African Americans to pass the voter eligibility requirements. After originating in Louisiana, Grandfather Clauses and other similar laws spread across southern states and were in place until 1965.

1920: 19th Amendment

The women’s suffrage movement began at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 and ended in 1920 following the ratification of the 19th Amendment. The movement advocated for gender equality and women’s right to vote. The amendment states, “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.” It was an unprecedented victory for women’s rights activists across the nation after almost a century of protest.

1924: Indian Citizenship Act

Before 1924, only Native Americans who were one-half or less biologically indigenous qualified for citizenship. The Indian Citizenship Act granted citizenship to all Native Americans born in the United States, regardless of ethnic and racial makeup. With valid citizenship also came the right to vote; however, because privileges of citizenship varied by state, Native Americans faced similar barriers to voting as African Americans did in the late 19th century with Grandfather Clauses.

1943: End of the Chinese Exclusion Act

The Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited immigration from China and barred descendants or residents from becoming American citizens. After fighting alongside China as allies during World War II, the United States allowed Chinese immigrants and American-born Chinese individuals to apply for citizenship. If approved, they became American citizens and were permitted to vote in elections. Even then, they faced attempted disenfranchisement similar to that experienced by Native Americans and African Americans.

1961: 23rd Amendment

The 23rd Amendment was ratified in 1961, declaring that Americans residing in the District of Columbia were allowed to vote in presidential elections. Previously, DC residents were only allowed to vote if they had a valid registration in one of the official 50 states. The amendment officially gave the territory three electoral votes, matching the state with the least amount of electoral votes. While the District of Columbia is not recognized as a state, it has a unique degree of autonomy and is granted a mayoral office and Council.

1964: 24th Amendment

The 24th Amendment was one of the first pieces of federal legislation that addressed the unjust methods used to disenfranchise people of color. While it did not close all the loopholes that were previously exploited, it banned poll taxes and the implementation of monetary barriers to voting. A poll tax is a voting fee and was heavily enforced in the late 1800s with the Grandfather Clause and efforts to bar African Americans from voting. The high monetary cost to vote resulted in severe declines in African American participation in federal elections. The 24th Amendment effectively banned poll taxes in federal elections but did not intervene in state affairs. However, two years later in 1966, the United States Supreme Court declared all poll taxes, in federal or state elections, unconstitutional.

1965: Selma Marches

The marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama were a series of three protests against the systemic discriminatory barriers to voting that African Americans faced. Each time, police confronted Black protesters, with the second march escalating much faster than the first and resulting in the deaths of over 60 protesters. The second march is now referred to as “Bloody Sunday.” The marches reflected a turning point in the Civil Rights movement when President Lyndon B. Johnson acknowledged them. Selma was seen as a culmination of years of racial injustice and discriminatory voting practices.

1965: Voting Rights Act

Ten days after the conclusion of the Selma marches, the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 was introduced. The Act instituted the most dramatic legislative changes to voting rights in American history. In addition to the formal abolishment of barriers such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and property requirements, the Act also prohibited the use of harassment and intimidation tactics at voting sites. It also required states to provide assistance during elections for voters who could not read or write.

While the entire legislation was heavily contested, Sections 2 and 5 in particular raised concerns from states’ rights advocates. Section 2 of the Act essentially rephrased and reinforced the provisions of the 15th Amendment, stating that the right to vote shall not be denied based on their race. Voting practices were consequently subject to federal, not state, oversight. Section 5 prohibited jurisdictions prone to discriminatory voting practices from implementing changes to voting laws unless approved by the United States Attorney General or the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.

Section 4(b) of the bill outlined the formula for determining which jurisdictions were subject to the aforementioned approval process under Section 5. The Act faced many legal challenges on the grounds that it abridged the posited separation between the federal and state governments. After five years of Supreme Court battles, the Voting Rights Act prevailed.

Extensions of the Voting Rights Act

The Voting Rights Act was initially written to expire after five years but was continuously amended and extended. In 1970, the Act was extended for another five years, and another seven years in 1975. President Reagan signed a 25-year extension in 1982, and President George W. Bush extended the Act for another 25 years in 2006. It will be subject to another decision to renew prior to 2031.

1971: 26th Amendment

For almost two centuries, the age requirement to vote was 21 until the ratification of the 26th Amendment in 1971. During World War II in the 1940s, men as young as 18 were subject to the draft; the saying "Old enough to fight, old enough to vote" became more popular both in society and among politicians. Until the late 1960s, youth and student activists urged legislators to grant voting rights to young adults. After decades of no legislative action, the 26th Amendment was finally proposed in Congress and received overwhelming bipartisan support. The amendment was enacted 100 days after being introduced on the Congress floor; the fastest any amendment has ever been ratified.

1975: Rights for Non-English Speakers

The Voting Rights Act was amended in 1975 with language minority provisions. It required jurisdictions that have more than 10,000 eligible non-English speaking voters, or a proportion higher than 5 percent, to provide translation assistance throughout the voting process. Prior to the enactment of the provisions, citizens of language minorities were regularly excluded from civic participation. The amendment reassured the American people that English proficiency is not a requirement to vote like age and citizenship are.

1984: Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act

The Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act (VAEHA) required accessible polling places for the elderly and disabled during federal elections. If no accessible polling places were made available, voters must be given an alternative method to cast their ballot. While the Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlined similar provisions, prohibiting the denial of voting based on a person’s inability to read or write, the VAEHA made the first changes to the structure of polling places instead of voting protocol.

1993: National Voter Registration Act

The National Voter Registration Act was another attempt to increase voter registration and turnout in federal elections. The law required all offices providing public assistance or receiving state funding to be a voter registration site, such as DMVs and post offices. Additionally, each location also had to offer mail-in registration applications and maintain accurate voter registration data. The Act made voter registration more accessible and widespread, and it was very effective after its implementation. Over 30 million voters completed their registration in the first year alone.

2000: Bush-Gore Presidential Election Recount

The 2000 presidential election was about as close as an election could be. The results of the election hinged on 25 electoral votes from Florida. The two candidates, George W. Bush and Al Gore, were separated by a margin of fewer than 600 votes in the state near the end of the initial count. However, because the margin was less than 0.5 percent, a machine recount was already expected (as is standard). After the recount, Bush emerged as the apparent winner with a margin of 327 votes.

Still, the battle was not over in the courts. Allegations of faulty equipment and inconsistent ballot layouts swamped the state courts, delaying results even further. The Florida Supreme Court eventually decided to require a manual recount, much to the disappointment of the Bush campaign. They immediately filed suit in the United States Supreme Court to argue that the Florida Supreme Court’s decision overstepped its authority by authorizing a manual recount. The United States Supreme Court voted 5-4 in favor of the Bush campaign, ending the manual recount and declaring George W. Bush as the 43rd president.

The event marked the Supreme Court's first intervention in election matters, an unforeseen precedent to the 2020 election.

2002: Help America Vote Act

Following the dramatic progression of the 2000 election, the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) was passed in hopes to deter future elections from encountering similar problems. Much of the Bush-Gore election was contested on account of fault equipment and ballot inconsistencies. Therefore, the Act mandated the US Election Assistance Commission improve, update, and certify voting equipment to uphold election security standards. It also called for better poll worker training to ensure election security at polling sites. The provisions also continued to provide support for disabled and new voters by computerizing the voter registration process. Lastly, the HAVA instituted provisional balloting because inconsistent ballots in Florida allegedly caused many Gore voters to vote for a third-party candidate accidentally. Provisional balloting allows voters to write in other candidates and is later checked and validated by poll workers.

2013: Shelby County v. Holder

Though the Voting Rights Act of 1965 escaped the legal challenges when it was initially introduced, it could not avoid the challenge of Shelby County v. Holder nearly 50 years later. Shelby County, Alabama challenged the constitutionality of Section 4(b) and 5 of the VRA that required jurisdictions with a history of engaging in discriminatory voting practices to receive preclearance from the federal government before changing voting laws. They argued that the provision was extremely outdated and that it infringed upon states’ rights. In a divisive 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court sided with Shelby County, declaring Section 4(b) unconstitutional. Subsequently, this revoked Section 5 as well, and states were no longer required to receive preclearance. However, within five years, states subjected to Section 5 observed sweeping changes such as the closure of thousands of polling sites and changes to voter ID laws.

2020: Election Turnout

Even though the 2020 election occurred in a global pandemic and many states were still in lockdown, it saw one of the highest voter turnouts in modern American history. Around 66 percent of all eligible voters cast their ballots in the presidential election, 7 percent higher than in 2016. Significant contributing factors included the introduction of universal mail-in voting, higher turnout in early voting in most states, and efforts to increase voter registration in battleground states.

2021: Brnovich v. DNC

Considers whether Arizona’s out-of-precinct policy and ban of third-party collection of ballots violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.


Brnovich v. DNC was a recent appeal case brought to the Supreme Court by Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich. He appealed the 9th Circuit’s ruling that Arizona’s current out-of-precinct policy and ban of third-party collectors was unconstitutional. The DNC initially had argued that both policies violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act as they have underlying consequences that disadvantage voters of color. However, in a 6-3 decision, the Court ruled in favor of Brnovich. In his written opinion, Justice Samuel Alito stated that the two policies were not adopted for discriminatory purposes and only had minor disparate impacts on voters of color. Justices Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.

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