International Information Programs

Chapter 1
The Roots of Religious Liberty
Chapter 2
Religious Liberty in the Modern Era
Chapter 3
Freedom of Speech
Chapter 4
Freedom of the Press
Chapter 5
The Right to Bear Arms
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Trial by Jury
Chapter 8
Rights of the Accused
Chapter 9
Property Rights
Chapter 10
Cruel or Unusual Punishment
Chapter 11
Equal Protection of the Law
Chapter 12
The Right to Vote
—  C  H  A  P  T  E  R     12  —
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 race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

— Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (1870)
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.

— Nineteenth Amendment (1920)
The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any
primary or other election . . . shall not be denied or abridged . . . by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.

— Twenty-fourth Amendment (1964)
The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of age.
— Twenty-sixth Amendment (1971)
The Right to Vote

Abraham Lincoln best described democracy as "government of the people, by the people, and for the people." For that government to be "by the people," however, requires that the people decide who shall be their leaders. Without free and fair elections, there can be no democratic society, and without that constant accountability of government officials to the electorate, there can, in fact, be no assurance of any other rights. The right to vote, therefore, is not only an important individual liberty; it is also a foundation stone of free government.

Who shall have that right has been a persistent question in American history. A theme that runs throughout the American past is the gradual expansion of the franchise, from a ballot limited to white, male property-owners to a universal franchise for nearly everyone over the age of 18. A related theme is ensuring the full equivalency of each vote, insofar as that is possible within a federal system. But because Americans often take this right for granted, it has not always been exercised as fully as it should be. With nearly 200 million citizens eligible to vote, too many people think their individual ballot will not count. The closeness of the presidential election of 2000 has served as a reminder that every vote does count, however.

It would be a mistake, however, to view the expansion of the suffrage as either inevitable or peaceful. Although colonial Americans certainly believed in a free ballot, they also believed that the ballot ought to be restricted to men of property, whose wealth gave them a greater understanding of the needs of the society. The history of this franchise, although essential to the workings of democracy and the protection of individual rights, is a story of constant conflict.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835)

Once a people begins to interfere with the voting qualification, one can be sure that sooner or later it will abolish it altogether. That is one of the most invariable rules of social behavior. The further the limit of voting rights is extended, the stronger is the need felt to spread them still wider, for after each new concession the forces of democracy are strengthened, and its demands increase with the augmented power. The ambition of those left below the qualifying limit increases in proportion to the number of those above it. Finally the exception becomes the rule; concessions follow one another without interruption, and there is no halting place until universal suffrage has been attained.


Despite de Tocqueville's "rule," the progress of universal voting has been neither straightforward nor easy. Bitter political fights during the Jacksonian Era (1820s-1840s) were waged in order to eliminate the property requirement. A bloody civil war that practically tore the country in twain led to the enfranchisement of black former slaves. In World War I, proponents of the ballot for women seized upon Woodrow Wilson's call to make the world safe for democracy to press their case. Similarly, the sacrifice of men of color in World War II led the courts to begin tearing down the obstacles that had been erected to frustrate black voting. The deaths of so many young men in Vietnam in the 1960s in turn led to lowering the voting age to 18. More recently, it took prolonged suits in the federal courts to undo the malapportionment of state legislatures, a product of population shifts over nearly a century, in order to better equalize the vote in many states. Each step in expanding the franchise has been hard fought, and the road to universal suffrage has been neither short nor easy.

*        *        *        *        *
John Adams to James Sullivan on the suffrage (1776)

The same reasoning which will induce you to admit all men who have no property, to vote, with those who have . . . will prove that you ought to admit women and children; for, generally speaking, women and children have as good judgments, and as independent minds, as those men who are wholly destitute of property. . . . Depend upon it, Sir, it is dangerous to open so fruitful a source of controversy and altercation as would be opened by attempting to alter the qualifications of voters; there will be no end of it. New claims will arise; women will demand the vote; lads from twelve to twenty-one will think their rights not enough attended to; and every man who has not a farthing, will demand an equal voice with any other, in all acts of state. It tends to confound and destroy all distinctions, and prostrate all ranks to one common level.


Adams's view was the common one at the time of the American Revolution and at the framing of the Constitution, a document that did not even address the right to vote. Both the mother country and its colonies placed property restrictions on voting, and rested this practice on two assumptions. First, men who owned property, especially land, had a "stake" in preserving society and the government in order to protect their wealth. Second, only men of property had the "independence" to decide important political matters and to choose the members of the assembly who would debate and decide these matters. The 17th-century English soldier and political theorist Henry Ireton wrote the foundation of liberty is "that those who shall choose the law-makers shall be men freed from dependence upon others." To people of the upper and middle classes, such independence came only with the ownership of property.

This notion of "independence" led to the exclusion of women (who were dependent upon their husbands), young people (who were dependent upon their parents), slaves and servants (dependent upon their masters), and wage-earners (who relied upon temporary employment for their keep). In addition, a number of colonies barred Catholics and Jews, as well as Indians. Beyond that, the criteria for how much property a person needed to own in order to vote varied not only from colony to colony, but within each colony from countryside to township. People living in urban areas might own less real estate than their country cousins, but have far more personal property. All in all, historians estimate that at the time of the American Revolution, the proportion of adult white males who could vote was probably three in five, a figure higher than in Great Britain but still relatively narrow.

The Revolution, however, had a far greater democratic effect than many of its advocates had expected. If one took seriously the battle-cry of "no taxation without representation," a phrase that became widespread after the Stamp Tax riots of 1765, many people who paid taxes were deprived of this right. They either had no property, yet still paid taxes on goods they bought, or their property did not meet the minimum required for the vote. A writer in the Maryland Gazette in 1776 declared that "the ultimate end of all freedom is the enjoyment of a right to free suffrage." If that were true, then eight out of 10 colonists were effectively denied their freedom.

This logic was not lost on the rebelling colonists. Much as Adams and other conservatives wanted to retain a limited franchise, rebellion against the King's autocracy led to similar rebellion against property limits on voting. "No taxation without representation" applied just as well to the state assembly or the local town council as it did to the King and Parliament. Men would not fight for independence if they would merely secure one undemocratic regime in place of another. In the midst of the Revolution, citizens in western Massachusetts declared, "No man can be bound by a law that he has not given his consent to, either by his person, or legal representative."

As a result, the notion of property qualifications, at least in some areas, gave way to tax qualifications. If people paid taxes, then they should be able to vote, since only through the ballot could they prevent the government from abusing its powers and depriving them of their liberty. The result was that while the suffrage certainly expanded after the Revolution, it was still far from universal, and property qualifications, either in the form of actual ownership of real or personal property or minimal levels of taxation, continued to restrict the ballot for the next 50 years.

But did the ownership of property give men greater wisdom? Did the love of liberty, or good judgment on public affairs, depend upon one's wealth? Benjamin Franklin, perhaps the most thorough-going democrat at the conventions that drafted the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the Constitution in 1787, certainly did not believe that to be the case.

Benjamin Franklin on the suffrage

Today a man owns a jackass worth fifty dollars and he is entitled to vote; but before the next election the jackass dies. The man in the meantime has become more experienced, his knowledge of the principles of government, and his acquaintance with mankind, are more extensive, and he is therefore better qualified to make a proper selection of rulers — but the jackass is dead and the man cannot vote. Now gentlemen, pray inform me, in whom is the right of suffrage? In the man or in the jackass?


Franklin's comment would be repeated time and again in the next half-century, as battles to increase the suffrage were fought out in every state. (From the nation's founding until the Civil War, voting requirements were controlled by the state. Even today, although there are several constitutional provisions as well as federal voting rights laws, the primary responsibility for administering the franchise remains with the states.) Property requirements were gradually dismantled in state after state, so that all had been eliminated by 1850. By 1855, the tax-paying requirements had also been abandoned, so that few if any economic barriers remained to prevent white adult males from voting.

Scholars give several reasons for this development. They point to the democratic reforms of the Jacksonian Era, which struck down many economic prerogatives. The expansion of the Union westward also created states in which there was little wealth, and in which the egalitarian spirit of the frontier dominated. In the older states, the growth of industry and cities created a large working class that demanded participation in the political process even if its members had neither land nor significant personal property. Even in southern states, where the landed gentry still held sway, the growth of urban middle and working classes led to the demand for the vote free of property qualifications. Citizens of Richmond, Virginia, petitioned the 1829 state constitutional convention, and pointed out that should the Commonwealth ever need to be defended against foreign troops, as had happened in the past, no distinction would be drawn between those who owned and did not own land.

Memorial of the Non-Freeholders of the City of Richmond (1829)

[The property requirement] creates an odious distinction between members of the same community; robs of all share, in the enactment of the laws, a large portion of the citizens, bound by them, and whose blood and treasure are pledged to maintain them, and vests in a favoured class, not in consideration of their public services, but of their private possessions, the highest of all privileges. . . .

In the hour of danger, they have drawn no invidious distinctions between the sons of Virginia. The muster rolls have undergone no scrutiny, no comparison with the land books, with a view to expunge those who have been struck from the ranks of freemen. If the landless citizens have been ignominiously driven from the polls, in time of peace, they have at least been generously summoned, in war, to the battle-field.


Perhaps the greatest force behind the expansion of the suffrage was the rise of organized political parties that fielded slates of candidates who ran for office advocating a specific political viewpoint. During the first half of the 19th century, the Democratic Party, led by the followers of Andrew Jackson, mobilized urban voters, and led the fight to expand the franchise and do away with property requirements. Their opposition, the Whigs, would have preferred to have kept the suffrage limited, but recognizing that they fought a losing battle, also joined in, hoping to get some of the credit, as well as the votes, of those who could now freely cast their ballot.

But if by the 1850s most white males over the age of 21 could vote, two very large groups remained excluded from the political process — African-Americans and women.

*        *        *        *        *
Delegate to the Indiana Constitutional Convention (1850)

According to our general understanding of the right of universal suffrage, I have no objection . . . but if it be the intention of the mover of the resolution to extend the right of suffrage to females and Negroes, I am against it. "All free white males over the age of twenty-one years," — I understand this language to be the measure of universal suffrage.


The legal status of black slaves in the South was completely circumscribed by the law, and they had no rights to speak of, much less that of the ballot. Even free African-Americans, whether they lived in the North or the South, could not vote, while women, despite the passage of some reform legislation allowing them to own property and sustain lawsuits, still were seen by the law as dependencies of their husbands or fathers, and unfit as such to cast a vote.

It took a civil war to abolish slavery in the southern states, and as part of the effort to give the former bondsmen legal status and equality, the nation passed three amendments to the Constitution. The Thirteenth did away with slavery as an institution; the Fourteenth for the first time made citizenship a national trait, and conferred it upon all persons born or naturalized in the United States; and the Fifteenth barred any state from denying the vote on the basis of race.

Regrettably, the promise of emancipation soon faded, as one southern state after another not only put up legal or procedural roadblocks to keep blacks away from the polls, but through segregation laws relegated them to a permanent state of inferiority. Not until World War II, as American troops, both black and white, battled to defeat the fascists, did it become apparent that one could not fight for the rights of people overseas while denying those same rights to Americans simply because of the color of their skins.

In the middle of the war, the Supreme Court heard a challenge to the all-white primary system that was the norm throughout the South. In primary elections, members of a particular party choose which of the candidates will be the party's choice in the November general election. From the 1880s until the 1960s, whoever won the Democratic Party primary in most southern states was guaranteed victory in the general election, because the Republican Party was so weak in the South. Although the primary was thus an important, perhaps the most important, part of the election process, southern states maintained the fiction that political parties were private organizations, and thus could exclude blacks from membership and from voting in the primaries. In 1944, the Supreme Court struck down this fiction, and began the process by which African-Americans could claim their legitimate right to vote.

Justice Stanley Reed, in Smith v. Allwright (1944)

When primaries become a part of the machinery for choosing officials, state and national, as they have here, the same tests to determine the character of discrimination or abridgement should be applied to the primary as are applied to the general election. . . . The United States is a constitutional democracy. Its organic law grants to all citizens a right to participate in the choice of elected officials without restriction by any State because of race. This grant to the people of the opportunity for choice is not to be nullified by a State through casting its electoral process in a form which permits a private organization to practice racial discrimination in the election. Constitutional rights would be of little value if they could be thus indirectly denied.


The battle for black equality was far from over, and during the 1950s and 1960s the great civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, and others attacked racial discrimination in the courts and in the halls of Congress. The results, regarding voting, included the Twenty-fourth Amendment in 1964 that abolished the poll tax (which required people to pay a tax for the right to vote and therefore kept many poor people, especially blacks, from voting) and the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. For the first time in 100 years, the post-Civil War Reconstruction Amendments would now be enforced, and the law not only targeted practices that excluded blacks from voting, but gave the federal government the power to enforce the law at all levels.

The importance of the Voting Rights Act cannot be underestimated, not only for its success in getting African-Americans the ballot, but also because it effectively nationalized much of the right to vote. In a federal system, many functions of government are carried out by the states, functions that in other countries are managed by the national government. As noted above, voting was, and for the most part still is, controlled by state law. Until 1870, all requirements for voting were established by the states; in that year the Fifteenth Amendment supposedly precluded the states from denying the vote because of race. In subsequent amendments, the ballot was extended to women and to 18-year-olds, and the poll tax abolished. The Voting Rights Act went further, and in states with a clear pattern of discrimination, federal registrars took over the apparatus of registration and voting, ensuring that minorities would not be stopped from casting their votes. Some states still remain limited by the terms of this 1965 law, although day-to-day operation of the election machinery has for the most part been restored to state control. But while states still run the elections, they must now do so in the light of national standards and procedures.

*        *        *        *        *
Declaration of the Seneca Falls Convention (1848)

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal. . . .

The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her.

He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise.

He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice.

Having deprived her of this first right of a citizen, the elective franchise, thereby leaving her without representation in the halls of legislation, he has oppressed her on all sides.


When women began seeking the ballot is unclear, and there is evidence that women did vote occasionally in some of the states following the Revolution. The initiation of serious agitation for universal suffrage including women is usually attributed to the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, which explicitly copied much of the Declaration of Independence and then substituted the sins of men against women in place of the actions of George III toward his American colonies. But the reform movement of the 1850s could only support one major effort, and that proved to be the abolition of slavery, a movement in which women played a key role. When Congress gave the former slaves the right to vote, however, women felt betrayed. Because states still controlled voting, women began by lobbying state legislatures for the ballot. The Wyoming territory gave women the vote in 1869, but by 1900 only four states had granted women full political equality. The movement picked up steam during the Progressive era, the two decades of reform ferment between 1897 and 1917, and advocates of the ballot called for a constitutional amendment.

When the United States entered World War I as a declared effort to save democracy, political wisdom dictated that one could not send Americans to fight and die for an ideal overseas while denying it to half the population at home. President Woodrow Wilson, who had originally opposed such an amendment, now endorsed it; and Congress approved a constitutional amendment in June 1919. The necessary 36 states ratified the proposed amendment in less than a year, in time for women to vote in the 1920 presidential election.

*        *        *        *        *

Once U.S. law ensured that each adult had the right to vote, the next great achievement in the mid-20th century was assuring that every person's vote counted, not just in terms of the raw tally, but proportionally to how other people in the state voted. The Constitution is clear that each state is to have two senators, and that members of the House of Representatives are to be apportioned according to the state's share of the national population as determined by a required decennial census. But there is no guidance as to how these representatives are to be assigned within each state. James Madison, at the time the U.S. Constitution was written, had implied that the arrangement should be equitable, so that a man's vote would have approximately the same weight as his neighbor's in both state and federal elections.

Some states periodically redrew the lines of their (federal) congressional districts as well as their state assembly districts to ensure at least a rough equity among voters, and three?fifths of all states regularly reapportioned one or both of their legislative chambers. But despite major population shifts by the 1950s, 12 states had not redrawn their districts for more than three decades, leading to severe discrepancies in the value of an individual vote. In the small state of Vermont, for example, the most populous assembly district had 33,000 persons, the least populous 238, yet each elected one representative to the State Assembly. In California, the Los Angeles state senatorial district included six million people; in a more sparsely populated rural section of the state, the senate district had only 14,000 persons. Distortions such as these grossly undervalued urban and suburban votes and overvalued the ballot in older rural districts. Naturally, the rural representatives who controlled state government had little incentive to reapportion, because to do so would mean giving up their power.

Unable to secure change from the legislatures themselves, reform groups turned to the courts, invoking the constitutional guarantee of a "Republican Form of Government" (Article IV, Section 4), but the Supreme Court initially refused to get involved, since it had traditionally avoided questions involving apportionment, considering them to be "political" matters outside the ken of the courts. Then in March, 1962, the Court accepted a suit brought by urban voters in Tennessee, where there had been no redistricting since 1901, even though the state constitution required reapportionment every 10 years. The very fact that the Court had agreed to hear such cases led many legislatures to redistrict voluntarily; elsewhere reformers launched dozens of suits in state and federal courts to force reapportionment.

But the United States is a federal system, and to this date the votes in one state do not carry the same weight as do votes in other states during a presidential election. Under the American system, each state is entitled to a certain number of votes in the Electoral College, a body that meets once in four years to cast its ballot, as dictated by the popular election, for the president. Tiny Rhode Island has three votes in the Electoral College, equal to its one representative and two senators, and a vote there is proportionally greater on a per-person basis than that of large states like California or New York. Other issues have arisen in the federal system. Could states have an arrangement where one house of a bicameral legislature represents geographical units — such as counties — the way the U.S. Senate represents states? Could a state recognize certain historic divisions as a factor in drawing lines of voting districts? What standards would the High Court apply?

In fact, the criterion adopted by the Court in a case entitled Gray v. Sanders (1963) proved so remarkably clear and relatively easy to apply — one person, one vote — that it not only provided judicial guidance, but caught the popular imagination as well. All other formulations of the issue appeared to pit one group against another-rural versus urban, old settler against newcomers — but "one person, one vote" had a democratic ring to it. Who could object to assuring every person that his or her vote counted equally with those of others? To support this formula meant upholding democracy and the Constitution; to oppose it seemed mean and petty. Within a relatively short time all the states in the Union had reapportioned their state as well as congressional districts in an equitable manner.

Chief Justice Earl Warren, in Reynolds v. Sims (1964)

To the extent that a citizen's right to vote is debased, he is that much less a citizen. The weight of a citizen's vote cannot be made to depend on where he lives. . . . A citizen, a qualified voter, is no more nor no less so because he lives in the city or on the farm. This is the clear and strong command of our Constitution's Equal Protection Clause. . . .

Neither history alone, nor economic or other sorts of group interests, are permissible factors in attempting to justify disparities from population-based representation. . . . Citizens, not history or economic interests, cast votes. People, not land or trees or pastures, vote. As long as ours is a representative form of government, and our legislators are those instruments of government elected directly by and directly representative of the people, the right to elect legislators in a free and unimpaired fashion is a bedrock of our political system.

*        *        *        *        *

One would think that with the abolition of property requirements and poll taxes, the enfranchisement of people of color, women, and 18-year-olds, the battle for the right to vote had been won. But as we have noted so often, democracy is a constantly evolving process, and how we define individual rights within a democracy also changes over time. There is a big difference in how an American citizen voted in the 1820s and how that ballot is cast at the beginning of the 21st century. Moreover, it is not a simple case of pro-democratic heroes wanting to expand the franchise while anti-democratic demons want to narrow it.

Throughout American history people of the so-called better sort have feared mob rule; it is a theme that runs throughout the writings of the Founding generation. In different form today we find a version of it among those who would "purify" the electoral process. Efforts to making voting registration easier, for example, are often attacked as inviting corruption into the process. The relaxation of literacy standards and the expansion of voting rights to citizens who do not speak or read English is hailed by some as a victory of democracy and attacked by others who fear that people with little knowledge of the issues can be manipulated by demagogues.

Yet the curious fact remains that for all that we have expanded the franchise, the percentage of Americans who vote in presidential and other elections is one of the lowest among industrialized nations. In the 2000 presidential campaign, for example, less than 50 percent of the eligible voters cast their ballots. Scholars differ on why this decline in voting has occurred from the high point of the late 19th century, when voting rates regularly ran at 85 percent or better of qualified voters. Some historians attribute the decline to the corresponding decline in the importance of political parties in the daily lives of the people. Others think that the growth of well-moneyed interest groups has led people to lose interest in elections fought primarily through television and newspaper advertisements. When non-voters are queried as to why they did not vote the answers range widely. There are those who did not think that their single vote would make a difference, and those who did not believe that the issues affected them, as well as those who just did not care — a sad commentary in light of the long historical movement toward universal suffrage in the United States.

Technical and procedural questions remain. In the 2000 presidential election, election officials in the state of Florida discarded up to 50,000 ballots, primarily because the ballot cards had been improperly punched so that it was unclear for whom the voter had cast his or her ballot. At that point, because of the archaic system known as the Electoral College, the entire election hinged on less than a few hundred votes cast in that state. Both Democrats and Republicans immediately went into court to challenge the procedures, and in the end the Supreme Court of the United States in essence awarded Florida — and the election — to George W. Bush.

In this case — and not for the first time — the Electoral College produced a president who had a minority of the popular vote. Americans are well aware of the Electoral College structure. It is not one of the most effective or rational aspects of American democracy, and is a relic of a time when the people were not trusted to elect a president directly. But the Electoral College system is also valuable today in terms of ensuring the status of the smaller states within the federal system, and in reality there is little chance of it being reformed.

The ballot-tallying problems associated with the 2000 election obscured some very important issues. Both sides wanted a fair counting of the vote; they wanted each ballot that had been legitimately cast and properly marked to count, but differed on the technical criteria by which to determine these matters. Despite cries in the media that the state discriminated against minorities in how it handled the matter, the fact is that a majority of the votes that were eventually disallowed had been cast by middle-class elderly white voters, most of whom had been confused as to how they were supposed to mark the ballots. No one, then or now, has suggested that this was a ruse to invalidate tens of thousands of votes; no one up until the counting actually began realized that the system was far less than perfect, and in the next session of its legislature, Florida instituted reforms to ensure that such a debacle would not happen again.

Such an election, with the person getting the most popular vote not winning, is rare in the United States, and it is one sign of the faith people have in the normal workings of the U.S. election process that they easily accepted George Bush as the winner. There were no riots in the streets, no barricades established. The Democratic candidate, Al Gore, accepted the Supreme Court's decision on how the ballots should be counted.

But many people were reminded by the closeness of the 2000 presidential election that the individual's vote does count. A shift of fractions of a percentage point in half-a-dozen states could easily have swung the election the other way. Perhaps as a result, Americans in the future will not take this important right, a right that lies at the very heart of the notion of "consent of the governed," quite as much for granted.

For further reading:

Marchette Gaylord Chute, The First Liberty: A History of the Right to Vote in America, 1619-1850 (New York: Dutton, 1969).

Linda K. Kerber, No Constitutional Right to be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship (New York: Hill & Wang, 1998).

Alexander Keyssar, The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States (New York: Basic Books, 2000).

Donald W. Rogers, ed., Voting and the Spirit of American Democracy (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992).

Charles L. Zelden, Voting Rights on Trial (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2002).

Back to Top

       This site is produced and maintained by the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of International Information Programs.
       Links to other internet sites should not be construed as an endorsement of the views contained therein.