As the 2018 midterm election approaches, several states have passed new laws regulating voter identification, poll locations and hours of operation, and voter registration and eligibility. Advocates of these laws argue that such legislation is necessary to prevent voter fraud or simplify the voting process, while opponents contend that these laws restrict voter access and reduce turnout.
Debates about the restriction and expansion of the franchise have a long history in what is now the United States. During the colonial era, white, male, and propertied or tax-paying residents of the British colonies largely composed the nation’s electorate. The Revolutionary War (1775-1783) resulted in the birth of a new American republic dedicated to the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but Americans still faced barriers to exercising the franchise. The nation’s founding document, the U.S. Constitution, left it to the states to decide who could and could not vote. While some states expanded the franchise, others limited it. At the turn of the nineteenth century, women, enslaved African Americans, and some free men without property still lacked the ability to choose their political representatives.
By the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865), most states had eliminated property requirements for voting, but no state had yet extended the franchise to its female citizens or to slaves. President Abraham Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 liberated four million African Americans from slavery — but did not grant them citizenship or the right to vote. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass, amongst others, recognized that freedom was not enough; he explained to the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1863 that “our Work will not be done until the colored man is admitted [as] a full member in good and regular standing in the American body politic,” as “a full and complete citizen, a legal voter.”
During Reconstruction (1865-1877), African American freed-people gained citizenship and black men received the right to vote after the ratification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. The latter amendment, which the New York Times described as necessary to “harmonize the conditions of suffrage throughout the Union,” declared that “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.” African Americans subsequently helped elect more than 1,500 black political officeholders, including seven Congressmen, between 1870 and 1887. But white supremacists, particularly those who supported the Democratic Party and resided in the South, sought to prevent African Americans from voting. Members of terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, organized in 1865, used violence to intimidate and punish those who voted for the Republican Party. During the late nineteenth century, Southern states further restricted blacks’ ability to vote by enacting poll taxes and literacy tests. Impoverished blacks in the rural South found it difficult to pay the expensive taxes or to complete deliberately confusing, complex literacy tests. These tactics effectively reduced black voter turnout in the South during the decades that followed Reconstruction. In fact, no African Americans served in the House of Representatives between 1903 and 1929, or in the Senate between 1883 and 1967. This absence of black Congressmen indicates that these discriminatory laws succeeded in preventing African Americans from exercising one of their most important civil rights.
The passage of the Nineteenth Amendment (1920) and the Voting Rights Act (1965) finally secured for women the franchise and removed substantial obstacles to voting for African Americans. After decades of campaigning, women cheered an amendment to the Constitution that guaranteed that “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.” Nearly a half-century later, Civil Rights activists celebrated Congress’s passage of the Voting Rights Act, which banned discriminatory legislation on the state level that restricted African Americans’ ability to vote. By some estimates, the Voting Rights Act helped ensure the immediate registration of 250,000 black voters and led to increased turnout among African Americans across the country. One hundred years after the Civil War ended, African Americans finally began to realize their dream of voting without significant barriers.
In the historic struggle for the franchise, Americans have been inspired by the nation’s founding principles of liberty and democracy. Living in an imperfect republic, many have fought to ensure the realization of these principles for all American citizens. As November draws nearer, Americans must remember the ways in which civil rights have been denied to their forebearers and seek to ensure that Americans can freely, safely, and easily exercise their right to vote in future elections.
Amanda Bellows is a Lecturer in History at The New School who specializes in 19th and 20th century American history in transnational perspective. In 2018, she helped produce the exhibition “Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow ” at the New York Historical Society.