Volume 18: Voting in the 2004 Elections
History of Voting
Many of us take our right to vote for granted. Our state and federal governments, however, have been instrumental in the past in denying different groups of people—including women, African-Americans, young people, people who didn't own land and who couldn't pay poll taxes, and people who couldn't read and write—the right to vote. And throughout history these groups of people have organized, struggled, and fought for their right to vote. This activity presents a brief history of voting rights in this country.
Begin with a general discussion of what a democracy is and how it is different from other types of governments. Ask learners, "What does it mean to vote?" After helping students read (on this page), use these questions to discuss each section. Insert the name of each group:
- How do you think this group felt when they were not allowed to participate in the voting process?
- Who do you think denied this group the right to vote? Why would they want to do that?
- Who might have helped this group fight for the vote? Who would have fought against it?
- Do you think this group could ever have its right to vote banned again? Why or why not?
- How might our country be different today if only White male property owners could vote?
- Some say that taking the right to vote from criminals is a racist policy. Do you agree? Why or why not? Do you think it is fair that released felons cannot vote? Why or why not?
- Do you think foreign-born people who are permanent residents of the U.S. should be allowed to vote? Why or why not?
What If the Government Said You Couldn't Vote?
In modern America, almost everyone can vote who wants to. But it wasn't always that way! Here are some of the groups that have been blocked from voting over the past two hundred years.
1. Women. For many years only men were allowed to vote. Women were considered too emotional to make wise choices. It took 75 years of protesting before women won the right to vote through the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920.
2. Poor People. When this country was first founded, only White men who owned land were allowed to vote. Lawmakers believed that only property owners had enough at stake in the country to vote responsibly. By the early 1800s, the property requirement was replaced with a poll tax, which required citizens to pay a special fee in order to vote. Poll taxes were made illegal by the 24th amendment to the Constitution in 1964.
3. Young People. For many years, voting was restricted to adults 21 years and older in some states. During the Vietnam War era, many people argued that if you were old enough to fight and die for your country, you were old enough to vote. The 26th Amendment, passed in 1971, granted the right to vote to everyone 18 or older.
4. People Who Could Not Read and Write. Early in America's history, some states only allowed people who could read or write to vote. State lawmakers believed that only people who could read and write could get the information they needed to make smart choices. Nowadays, there are many ways to get information that do not involve reading and writing. The 1965 Voting Rights Act banned literacy tests.
5. African-Americans. The Constitution did not specifically restrict voting to White people. But it stated that only freemen or people who were not slaves could vote. This made it illegal for most African-Americans to vote until after the Civil War. The 15th Amendment, passed in 1870, allowed Black men (not women) to vote. After that, many states passed new laws to restrict Black voting. Literacy tests, poll taxes, and intimidation were methods used to limit Black voting. Southern states imposed a "grandfather" clause, which said that voters whose grandfathers had voted didn't have to take a literacy test. This benefited White men who could not read, because their grandfathers might have been able to vote. This did not help Black men, however, because their grandfathers would have been slaves and would not have been able to vote anyway. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 did away with all these restrictions on who could vote. It also set up a system to make sure that the new law would be followed.
Are There Still People in the United States Who Can't Vote?
Yes. Convicted felons in most states can't vote. States vary as to whether they restore this right when people get out of jail. In some states, a felon is allowed to vote again once the sentence is served. Mississippi requires a pardon by the governor before a released felon can vote. Also, people who live in the U.S. but are not citizens of this country cannot vote even though they may work and pay taxes here.
History of Voting and What if the Government Said You Couldn't Vote reprinted with permission from the Civic Participation and Community Action Sourcebook, Second edition. Edited by Andy Nash. Boston, MA: New England Literacy Resource Center, 2001. Originally adapted from Beyond Basic Skills, Vol. 2, No. 3, Summer 1998 by Tom Valentine and Jenny Sandlin. Published by the Department of Adult Education. The University of Georgia. http://www.coe.uga.edu/adulted.
Back to Table of Contents