As we celebrate the 247th anniversary of the adoption of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, we reflect on the evolution of democracy and this audacious experiment in self-government in which the right to vote plays such a key role.
While the Declaration of Independence put forth such shared ideals as equality and the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, it would take successive generations pushing the nation to live up to its stated ideals to expand the voting franchise—and even the idea of citizenship itself—to more fully realize such ideals.
At Nonprofit VOTE, we are proud to be a part of this history and ongoing effort to foster a more inclusive democracy in which all voices—across the political spectrum and irrespective of partisan concerns—are represented through the voting process. We remain committed to collaborating with nonprofits, businesses, schools, libraries, election officials, and volunteers from across the country to ensure that every eligible American is registered to vote.
A Brief History of Voting in the United States
In establishing a democratic republic, the founders put power in the hands of the people and their representatives as opposed to a monarch, but the U.S. Constitution originally left it to the states to determine “the Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections.” Most states restricted voting to white males who owned property, and some even employed religious tests that further restricted the vote to Christians. Also, not every state used the popular vote to determine which presidential candidates electors would vote for, so turnout in presidential elections was relatively low in the early years of the Republic.
The shared ideals laid out in the Declaration of Independence would be appealed to by abolitionists, women’s rights leaders, civil rights leaders, and more in efforts to expand voting rights over the years. The 19th century saw a loosening of requirements around property ownership as well as expansions of the notion of citizenship and related de jure extensions of the franchise. Also notable was the first instance of absentee voting during the Civil War to allow deployed soldiers to cast their ballots. And, with the change to states using the popular vote to inform electors’ votes for presidential candidates in 1824, turnout in presidential elections increased dramatically, generally fluctuating between 70 and 80 percent during the second half of the 19th century.
Reconstruction Amendments extend voting rights regardless of race. Following the Civil War, the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ensured that the Bill of Rights applied to all U.S. citizens, regardless of race. The Amendment’s Citizenship Clause guaranteed birthright citizenship to most people born in the United States or U.S. territories, overriding the Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) U.S. Supreme Court decision that denied U.S. citizenship to African Americans, whether born in the United States or not, and whether enslaved or free.
While the 14th Amendment guaranteed the rights of citizenship regardless of color, states still controlled many of the specifics around elections, necessitating the 15th Amendment’s stipulation 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.” Despite this, almost another century would pass before the Voting Rights Act and related legislation and court cases addressed remaining de facto barriers in such forms as poll taxes and literacy tests.
While the 15th Amendment prohibited the denial of the right to vote based on race, it would take an additional 50 years to extend that same right based on sex. Likewise, citizenship for Native Americans was not a settled matter of law until a series of the Snyder Act of 1924 extended full citizenship to Native Americans born in the United States. Even then, it took more than 40 years before all 50 states allowed Native Americans to vote, with many voting protections reaffirmed and strengthened through the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and subsequent legislation.
Eliminating de facto disenfranchisement. Ratified in 1964, the 24th Amendment prohibited denying citizens the right to vote for “failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.” Further solidifying the prohibition of poll taxes, the U.S. Supreme Court found poll taxes to be unconstitutional under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment in Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections (1966).
The Voting Rights Act—” to enforce the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution”—was passed 95 years after the amendment was ratified, after peaceful demonstrations met with considerable violence brought renewed attention to the issue of voting rights. The Act outlawed discriminatory voting practices such as literacy tests, established a federal “preclearance” role for any new voting practices and procedures in “covered” jurisdictions, and directed the Attorney General to challenge the use of poll taxes (resulting in the aforementioned Harper decision). By the end of 1965, a quarter of a million new Black voters had been registered. The Act was immediately challenged and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in a series of decisions between 1965 and 1868, and reauthorized by Congress in 1970, 1975, 1982, 1992, and 2006.
As part of the 1975 reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, new provisions were added to require the provision of multilingual assistance at the polls and voting materials in multiple languages to protect the rights of citizens with limited or no proficiency in English. The 1982 reauthorization required states to make voting more accessible for people with disabilities.
Lowering the voting age. In 1971, the 26th Amendment prohibited the use of age as a reason to deny the vote to citizens 18 and older. The 1960s’ student activism largely drove this franchise expansion, along with the war in Vietnam in which many 18–20-year-olds were drafted but largely could not vote.
Efforts to expand voter registration and participation. Even as the number of legally eligible voters increased, the 20th century saw a decrease in voter engagement. To address the first step in voter engagement, the National Voter Registration Act—commonly known as “motor voter”—was passed in 1993. The law required states to (a) allow voter registration when citizens applied for driver’s licenses and at offices offering public assistance; and (b) offer mail-in registration. More than 30 million people completed voter registration applications or updated their registration through means made available because of the law in the first year of its implementation.
The extremely close 2000 presidential election highlighted challenges across the country, from inconsistent rules and procedures to issues with ballot design and equipment. With some of these challenges in mind, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act in 2002 to streamline election procedures nationwide, requiring updating voting equipment, making provisional ballots available, creating statewide voter registration lists, and ensuring people with disabilities could cast private, independent ballots.
The first annual National Voter Registration Day was held in 2012 to concentrate efforts to reach the scores of Americans who either haven’t yet registered to vote or need to update their registration due to a recent move, name change, naturalization, or other reason. In its first decade, the nation’s largest, nonpartisan civic holiday dedicated to celebrating our democracy by registering as many eligible Americans as possible has helped more than 5 million Americans register to vote through the collective efforts of thousands of volunteers, nonprofits, businesses, schools, libraries, election officials, and individuals across the country. In recent years, we’ve been glad to see the growth of civic holidays to span the full voter engagement experience, from National Voter Education Week to Vote Early Day and Election Hero Day.
Voting Rights Act in the 21st century. In Shelby County v. Holder (2013), the U.S. Supreme Court held that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act imposed burdens on particular voting districts that were no longer responsive to current conditions, making for an unconstitutional federal violation of the power to regulate elections that are reserved for the states in the U.S. Constitution. The Court also held that the formula for determining preclearance was outdated. Following this ruling, several states instituted stricter voter identification laws that had previously been blocked under the preclearance of the Voting Rights Act.
Following the 2020 Census, several districts were redrawn, with claims of gerrymandering on both sides of the aisle. In the U.S. Supreme Court’s most recent voting rights case, Allen v. Milligan (2023), precedent was upheld around the remaining portions of the Voting Rights Act. In particular, the three-part framework for evaluating claims brought under Section 2 of the Act, as set forth in Thornburg. V. Gingles (1986), was maintained in finding that Alabama’s redistricting map likely violated this section of the Voting Rights Act.
Election integrity and increased voter turnout. Close elections in 2016 and beyond have raised the specter of voter fraud. Despite analysis by The Washington Post finding only 4 documented cases (out of 135 million ballots cast) of voter fraud in the 2016 election and continuing fact checks from various sources showing how “exceedingly rare” voter fraud is in reality, mis- and dis- information continue to circulate, undermining faith in our electoral system.
Despite this, the 2018 election set a 100-year record for turnout in midterm races, and several state ballot measures were approved to make it easier to vote and expand the electorate. The 2022 midterms also saw high turnout rates, nearly reaching the 2018 record, although only a minority of states registered an increased turnout between 2018 and 2022, according to Census Bureau data from the Current Population Survey’s Voting and Registration supplement.
Likewise, the 2020 presidential election had the highest turnout of any election since 1900. With virtually every election jurisdiction across the nation expanding voting options like mail-in voting options and early voting sites to make voting easier and safer during the pandemic in 2020, it remains to be seen the extent to which the nature of voting has been forever changed. Alongside these increased voting options was a rise in organizations promoting voter registration, education, and Get-Out-the-Vote efforts. National Voter Registration Day efforts, alone, saw 1.5 million voters registered in 2020—more than the 8 previous years combined—yet too many eligible voters remain unregistered or unsure of their registration status.