The U.S. has restricted voting rights based on arbitrary categories like gender, race and social class since it was founded in 1776. In spite of the Constitution's lofty promises and inclusive rhetoric on behalf of "we the people," each century in U.S. history has seen new, localized battles over voting rights. The 19th century -- marked by North-South tensions and the Civil War -- was particularly fraught for anyone who was not a white male, preferably a white male property-owner.
Native Americans were not considered citizens during the 1800s, meaning they could not vote in U.S. elections. There were white-led efforts during the 1800s that paved the way for a few Native American men to earn citizenship as a reward for cultural assimilation. Some did, but members of tribes that resisted deportation and surrender were refused the vote throughout the century -- and, indeed, until 1957, when all states finally implemented the Native American Suffrage Act of 1924.
Except in some isolated cases at the state level, women were not permitted to vote in the United States during the 19th century. One notable exception was the territory of Wyoming, which had long enforced women's suffrage by the time it became a state in 1890. Women's suffrage was granted by the 19th Amendment in August 1920 after an intense struggle that included the jailing and beating of many suffragists, as well as the force-feeding of some who went on hunger strikes. Still, state-level regulations that restricted the rights of the illiterate, people of color and others continued to prevent some women from voting.
Most African-Americans could not vote throughout most of the 1800s. Black men were officially enfranchised in 1870 by the 14th Amendment. During the years immediately following the Civil War, black male voting skyrocketed. But in 1875, the Supreme Court limited the rights of the federal government to enforce black suffrage, and organized suppression of the black vote spread throughout the South. Following the Supreme Court decision, Southern states laid the groundwork for what became known as Jim Crow -- laws that turned away many African-Americans due to illiteracy or inability to pay a poll tax. The expansion of the Ku Klux Klan in the first half of the 20th century accompanied attacks on black voters at polling stations, often ignored or even supported by local police. Jim Crow was not reversed until the Civil Rights Act of 1965. The poll tax was required in federal elections until Congress passed the 24th Amendment in 1964; it was not outlawed at the state level until a Supreme Court decision in 1966 found poll taxes unconstitutional.
Legacies of Voter Disenfranchisement
In July 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a major provision of the Voting Rights Act that had forced precincts with histories of voter discrimination to get changes in voting procedure approved by the Justice Department before implementation. On the day it was overturned, state governments in North Carolina and Texas introduced expansive changes in voting; the NAACP and state Democrats charged that the changes explicitly targeted poor people and people of color. When the U.S. Congress failed to produce a new formula for determining pre-clearance requirements, it fell to the Justice Department to handle voting rights challenges on a piecemeal basis.
- Archives.gov: Constitution of the United States
- AmericasLibrary.gov: Congress Granted Citizenship to All Native Americans Born in the U.S.
- The City University of New York: Native Americans and Chinese Get the Vote
- Learner.org: A Chronology of the Growth of Suffrage in the United States
- University of Nevada-Las Vegas School of Law: Citizenship and Suffrage -- The Native American Struggle for Civil Rights in the American West, 1830-1965
- Archives.gov: 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution - Women's Right to Vote
- Scholastic.com: Women's Suffrage
- Justice.gov: The Voting Rights Act of 1965
- The Daily Beast: The Supreme Court’s Ruling and the End of the Civil-Rights Era
- Comstock Images/Stockbyte/Getty Images