The American governmental system is a representative democracy with a key fundamental elementhe right or privilege to vote. The system operates by peaceable argument. People take sides, debate (argue their views), and vote to reach a decision. Just because a decision is reached does not suggest the arguments are over. The decision only means voters will abide by the decision of the majority for a specific amount of time until the next vote is taken. Consequently, in the United States, government by the people never means full consent (everyone agreeing on one way). At any given time many citizens may be opposed to who is in power or may be against what the government is doing.
But even the smallest minorities, by participating actively, may influence a democracy. A democracy undergoes constant change in responding to the needs and concerns of its people. Voting provides the means to change.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century most Americans think of the right to vote as one of the most basic rights of U.S. citizenship. However, citizenship and voting have not always been directly related. From the signing of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 until 1971, large numbers of American citizens could not vote.
The Framers of the Constitution feared giving too much political power to the people would encourage mob rule. In 1776 John Adams, a respected advocate for American liberty who would become America's second president, warned that granting the vote to everyone would bring political disaster. In 1787 Alexander Hamilton told the constitutional convention that "the people seldom judge or determine right." The Framers believed voting should be limited to white landowning men. Owning property, they believed, gave men a stake in society and made them more responsible citizens.
As originally adopted, the U.S. Constitution allowed those eligible to vote to only elect members of the House of Representatives. To check the power of the people, the President and senators were elected by state legislators. The Framers also left to the states the power to decide which of their citizens should have the right to vote. As they hoped, most states enacted laws requiring some kind of property or wealthsually a certain amount of landefore allowing men to vote. The common man who owned no property or lacked a fixed amount of wealth could not vote at all. Congress did reserve for itself in Article I of the Constitution the power to control the time and place of elections.
The property requirements became increasingly unpopular. Beginning in Ohio in 1802, state after state passed laws giving the vote to all white men whether they owned property or not. By the late 1820s only Virginia still had the property requirement. Male citizens also won the right to vote in presidential elections and to choose senators by direct vote when the Seventeenth Amendment was ratified in 1913.
Yet, most adult citizens still could not vote simply because they were female, black, or young. The struggle for the right to vote would continue as a peoples' fight, battling step by step, to turn America into a nation truly "of the people."
Women Gain the Right to Vote
The extraordinary letter by Abigail Adams illustrated that even before the Constitution was penned a few women were not content to be voiceless in the new nation. But the thought of women voting seemed ridiculous to many men and women. Most women accepted the idea of leaving decisions of government, like those of the family, to males. Yet, in July of 1848 five women in the village of Seneca Falls, New York called a meeting that started a fight to secure the woman's right to vote. Lead by Elizabeth Stanton, the group presented a resolution declaring, "we insist that [women] have immediate admission to all rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of the United States . . . it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves the right of elective franchise [the right to vote]." Suffrage (right to vote) associations concerned with women's rights began to appear around the nation. Victories were small at first but on December 10, 1869 the women of Wyoming became the first to win an unlimited right to vote.
The Supreme Court did not help the suffrage cause. In 1875, in Minor v. Happersett, the Court ruled that granting voting rights only to men in a state constitution was legal since the U.S. Constitution left the choice of who was qualified to vote to the states.
At the time, many considered petitions to Congress for a nationwide constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote laughable. However, in 1878 Susan B. Anthony managed a senate committee hearing on an amendment which simply declared, "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex."
By 1890 a more united front emerged with the National American Women's Suffrage Association (NAWSA). By 1910 eleven states had granted women the right to vote. The campaign grew and by 1914 all major women's groups had joined the suffrage campaign with some groups, such as the National Women's Party, becoming militant.
Finally, in 1919 following World War I (19148) in which women admirably worked on the home front in support of military efforts, Congress passed a constitutional amendment giving women nationwide the right to vote. By 1920 the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified and became law with wording exactly as Anthony crafted in 1878. Little legal resistance to women's suffrage occurred following adoption of the amendment.
Black Americans Gain the Right to Vote
Ratified in 1870, fifty years before the Nineteenth Amendment, the Fifteenth Amendment 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." Although passed and ratified to assure black Americans the right to vote, blacks would not be able to freely exercise their voting rights until 1965.
Following the end of the American Civil War (18615), many people, particularly in the South, were determined to keep newly freed blacks as close to servitude as possible. Yet, by the end of 1867, under federal army rule, about 700,000 Southern black males had become registered voters. Under military protection, they joined in choosing delegates to form new state governments and electing officials to run them.
White Republicans from the North and the new black Republican leaders, primarily controlled the resulting governments. This outraged the Southern population, long a stronghold of the Democratic Party and white supremacy.
Realizing the importance of the right to vote, segregationists (those intent on keeping blacks and whites separate) used any means possible to keep black men from voting. Even with military protection, many black voters had been intimidated (threatened) and cheated of their votes. The intimidation grew violent and that violence became organized with such groups as the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan's hooded midnight riders terrorized their victims by burning their homes, barns, and crops, and whipping, clubbing, and murdering.
Recognizing the Fifteenth Amendment was ineffective, Congress in the 1870s passed laws banning terrorist groups and imposing stiff penalties for interfering with black voters. However, the Supreme Court persisted in a narrow view that only states could define who could vote, consequently taking the teeth out of the laws. Federal enforcement lessened. Furthermore, the Court viewed acts of private individuals denying the voting rights of others as outside the reach of federal government power. By 1900 all eleven former Confederate states had made it virtually impossible for blacks to vote.
Southern states carefully worded their voting requirements to avoid obvious constitutional violations. As long as the states' requirements did not appear to discriminate on the basis of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude" they were not considered in violation of the Fifteenth Amendment. Though written to appear as applying equally to all men, in reality their requirements were directed solely against persons of color. The exclusion strategies included grandfather clauses, literacy tests, white primaries, and the poll tax. These requirements, in their various forms, successfully excluded blacks from political participation until the mid-1960s. Whites completely dominated all levels of government in Southern states.
Grandfather Clauses and Literacy Tests
A "grandfather clause" required all voters to show that their ancestors could vote in 1866, before the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, or pass a literacy (able to read) test. First enacted in Mississippi in 1890, this strategy spread rapidly throughout the Southern states. Most whites were exempted from the literacy test, whether they could read or not, by the grandfather clause because typically most white men had ancestors eligible to vote in 1866. On the other hand, blacks in 1890 had no ancestors who were eligible to vote in 1866. In Mississippi by 1892 black voter registration dropped from approximately 70 percent of black adult males to under 6 percent. When tested in courts, states contended the Fifteenth Amendment was not violated because all voter applicants were required to pass the clause or test. In 1915 the Supreme Court struck down grandfather clauses as unconstitutional in Guinn v. United States. However, literacy tests were not suspended.
If a black American somehow managed to get past all the barriers and gain the right to vote, his vote was usually insignificant anyway due to the white-only primaries. Under laws adopted by most Southern states, political parties could set their own rules for membership in their party. While the Republican Party was non-existent, the Democratic Party organized as private clubs in each state excluding all blacks. Only members of the Democratic Party could vote for candidates in its primaries. Since the Democratic Party was overwhelmingly dominate, whoever won the all-white primary would win the general election. The black vote cast in the general election, therefore, was meaningless.
Cases challenging the practice began reaching the Supreme Court. In Grovey v. Townsend (1935) the Court unanimously decided the political party was a private club of volunteers, not part of the state government. Therefore, its actions were not restricted by the Constitution. However, in United States v. Classic (1941) the Court recognized the primary was becoming a key part of the state election process. Three years later in the landmark case of Smith v. Allwright (1944), the Court held that voting in primary elections was "a right secured by the Constitution." Private all-white primaries were unconstitutional. The decision was later reaffirmed in Terry v. Adams (1953) finally ending white-only primaries.
Another common barrier to black voters and to poor whites was the poll tax. The poll tax was simply a fee charged at the polling (voting) place. When the Constitution was written, the poll tax was considered a legitimate way to raise revenue, but by the 1850s poll taxes had disappeared. They returned in some states in the early twentieth century as a means to exclude blacks from the political process since many could not afford to pay the tax. The Court in Breedlove v. Suttles (1937) upheld the poll tax because it was applied to both black and white voters. Public opinion grew against the tax in the 1940s. But, it was not until 1964 that Congress was finally able to pass and the states ratify the Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing the poll tax in federal elections. States still imposed poll taxes for state and local elections until the Court in Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections (1966) finally struck down all poll taxes.
Voting Rights Act of 1965
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s greatly raised public awareness of racial discrimination in America. Following the historic voting freedom march of 3,200 black protestors and white sympathizers from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama led by Dr. Martin Luther King, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Urging the passage of the act, Johnson had spoken to a joint session of Congress in March 1965, "Unless the right to vote be secured and undenied, all other rights are insecure and subject to denial for all citizens. The challenge of this right is a challenge to America itself."
The act prohibited any voting qualification requirements such as literacy tests in federal, state, local, general, and primary elections in any state or county where less than half the voting age residents were registered to vote. It applied to any type of qualification that denied the right of a U.S. citizen to vote because of race, color, or membership in a language minority group. In certain counties, registration would be taken over by federal examiners to ensure fairness in determining voter eligibility. The act also required seven states to obtain federal approval before making any changes to their election systems such as relocating polling sites, changing ballot forms, and altering election districts.
The act was immediately challenged in South Carolina v. Katzenbach (1966), but the Supreme Court ruled the act consistent with Congress' power to eliminate racial discrimination in voting. Within only a few years the rise in black voter registration was dramatic. In Mississippi alone black registration rose again to almost 60 percent by 1968. The act was amended in 1970 to suspend literacy tests nationwide. This suspension was upheld by the Court in Oregon v. Mitchell (1970).
One More Grouphe Young
A still later group of Americans to achieve the right to vote were men and women aged eighteen to twenty. From ancient English common law, the age when a boy became a man was generally considered twenty-one. By the time the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified in 1868, twenty-one had become the standard age adopted by states to first vote. The amendment did not actually say anyone had to be that old to vote, but it did penalize states "when the right to vote . . . is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State being twenty-one years of age. . . "
Attempts to lower the voting age to eighteen grew during World War I (19148) and World War II (19395). If young people were old enough to pay taxes and be sent to war, many believed, they should be able to vote. However, opponents argued that brawn to fight did not mean maturity to vote. By the 1950s opinion polls showed most Americans favored lowering the age, but Congress was unable to pass an amendment until March of 1971. The states took only two months to ratify the Twenty-sixth Amendment. As of 1971, virtually all American citizens age eighteen and older, regardless of race or sex, were eligible to vote.
Redistricting and Representation
A key issue related to voting rights and repeatedly brought before the courts is representation of minorities in the government in proportion to their numbers in the general population. Following passage of the Voting Rights Act, blacks made substantial political gains but were still under represented in proportion to their numbers. In 1975 only fifteen blacks were among the 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives. By 1989 there were only twenty-five. If blacks were represented proportionately to the number of black Americans in the nation, there should be between forty and fifty members.
A key to fair representation from city to national levels is the way boundaries of political voting districts are drawn. Every ten years after a new national census is taken, state legislatures must redraw district boundaries to reflect population change, a process known as "redistricting" or "reapportionment." The political party in power in the state legislature controls the process. Unfortunately, drawing of boundaries often has more to do with political self-interest than fairness. "Gerrymandering" or the unfair drawing of district lines has frequently been at issue. If Republicans controlled the state legislature they would shape boundaries to create secure Republican districts. Democrats would do the same if they held power. Also, if boundaries split an area of black voters between three or four districts, their chance of electing a black is less. In reaction, black leaders demanded boundaries be drawn in a way to improve chances of electing black legislators.
In Colegrove v. Green (1946) the Court expressed reluctance about becoming involved in redistricting issues. Finally in Baker v. Carr (1962) the Court ruled federal courts could indeed address problems of unequal distribution of voters in legislative districts. In Reynolds v. Sims (1964) the Court applied the "one person, one vote" redistricting rule originally established in Gray v. Sanders (1963). The issue leading to the "one person, one vote" decision was the problem of rural district boundaries drawn many years ago. As city populations grew through the 1950s, rural districts with small populations would often have the same legislative representation as city districts containing many more residents. Because the practice violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Court sought to have districts redrawn to better correspond with population size. In Wesberry v. Sanders (1964) the Court urged states to make an honest effort to draw congressional districts with as nearly equal populations as possible.
The Road to a Fully Representative Government
By 2000 Americans had been shaping their right to vote for over two hundred years. Expansion of the right to vote came in response to the demands of the people for equality and fairness in the voting process. By consistently enlarging the number of eligible voters, Americans have enlarged their entire base of government through participation of more people. Voting decisions gradually came to represent a diversity of groups having a meaningful voice.
Suggestions for further reading
Severn, Bill. The Right To Vote. New York: Ives Washburn, Inc., 1972.
Thernstrom, Stephan, and Abigail Thernstrom. America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.
Did this raise a question for you?