History of Voting Rights


Women's Suffrage Movement.

1848 - 1920

The first formal demand for equal political rights for women was made by ELIZABETH CADY STANTON at the 1848 SENECA FALLS CONVENTION. Among the radical pioneers of the early women's rights movement, woman suffrage was at first controversial, because electoral politics was considered disreputable and partisanship fundamentally male. However, after the CIVIL WAR and the abolition of SLAVERY, questions of CITIZENSHIP and enfranchisement had moved to the top of the national political agenda, and woman suffrage was widely accepted by women's rights activists as their foremost demand. At this point we can properly begin to speak about an American woman suffrage movement.

At war's end, woman suffrage leaders expected that white women would win the franchise along with freedmen and freedwomen via the establishment of universal suffrage. However, the Republican authors of the FIFTEENTH AMENDMENT refused to include "sex" alongside "race, color and previous condition of servitude" as federally prohibited disfranchisements. The woman suffrage forces disagreed over how to deal with this setback, as a result of which two rival organizations were formed. In one last effort to secure woman suffrage as part of RECONSTRUCTION, one of these societies, the National Woman Suffrage Association, developed an innovative constitutional argument. They contended that women as well as men had been made national citizens by the first clause of the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT; inasmuch as the franchise must be regarded as the defining right of citizenship, women thus already possessed the ballot and had merely to exercise it. In 1875, in MINOR V. HAPPERSETT the Supreme Court ruled against this construction and held that while women were indeed citizens, voting was not a right but a privilege, which could be constitutionally denied to women.

Over the next decades, the woman suffrage movement gained adherents. Of greatest importance was the endorsement of woman suffrage, as the best means to control liquor and protect the home, by the Woman's Christian Temperance Union under the leadership of Frances Willard. By 1890, woman suffrage, which had begun as a radical demand among a handful of antebellum ultraist reformers, was gaining ground among respectable, politically mainstream middle-class American women. That year, the two suffrage societies buried their differences and combined to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association. As woman suffrage became more acceptable, the movement, which had been forged in the fires of abolition and emancipation, became increasingly racist in its arguments and organizations. Nonetheless, in these same years African American women, who well knew the power of the vote, actively pursued votes for women through their own pro-suffrage societies, such as the National Association of Colored Women.

The constitutional upheavals of the Reconstruction era had left unresolved the question of where SOVEREIGNTY over the electorate lay, with the several states or with the federal government. Through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, while the progress to federal woman suffrage was stalled, advocates of votes for women concentrated on securing their goal by amending the constitutions of particular states. In 1869 and 1870, respectively, the territorial legislatures of Wyoming and Utah enacted woman suffrage provisions, which were retained when they became states in the 1890s. In 1893, Colorado became the first state in which the male electorate voted to amend the state constitution so as to grant women full VOTING RIGHTS. Idaho (1896), Washington (1910), and California (1911) followed. By 1912, there were ten "woman suffrage states," all west of the Mississippi. In the East, however, the "state method" could not prevail. In 1915, voters in four major eastern states—New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts—decisively defeated woman suffrage referenda. At this point, woman suffragists turned their attention back to winning a federal amendment.

By the first decade of the twentieth century, the suffrage movement itself was also changing. Steady growth in the female labor force and massive immigration altered both the composition and approaches of suffragism. New suffrage organizations oriented toward wage-earning women were founded in New York, Boston, and San Francisco. Female college graduates, whose numbers were growing, also flooded into the movement. The suffragist tactical arsenal was reinvented as well, as advocates moved their demands into public spaces, organized mass parades, conducted automobile caravans, and became adept at street-corner speaking.

As an expression of these changes, a second national organization, the Congressional Union (subsequently known as the Woman's Party) was formed in 1913. Its goal was to pursue more aggressively a woman suffrage amendment to the federal Constitution. Known as the "militants," this new wing turned to the voting women of the ten "suffrage states," urging women to vote against the reelection of President WOODROW WILSON in 1916 to punish the Democrats for refusing to support a federal suffrage amendment. Once the United States entered WORLD WAR I, however, the militants switched from electoral methods to civil disobedience, picketing the White House, for which many were arrested and jailed. Meanwhile, the majority of American suffragists, who were associated with the moderate National American Woman Suffrage Association, continued to rely on congressional lobbying.

By 1920, the combination of these approaches, plus the political transformations following the war, finally led to the passage and ratification of the NINETEENTH AMENDMENT to the Constitution, which prohibited the states from disfranchising its citizens on the grounds

14th amendment

1868 - 1869

Section 5 of the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT empowers Congress to "enforce, by appropriate legislation" the other provisions of the amendment, including the guarantees of the DUE PROCESS and EQUAL PROTECTION clauses of section 1. Congress can, of course, enact criminal penalities or provide civil remedies to redress violations of the due process and equal protection clauses. The more difficult issue is whether the Fourteenth Amendment enforcement power is large enough to allow Congress to forbid conduct that does not violate due process or equal protection.

In the CIVIL RIGHTS ACT OF 1875, Congress made RACIAL DISCRIMINATION in "inns, public conveyances …, theatres and other places of public amusement" a crime. The CIVIL RIGHTS CASES (1883) held that the Fourteenth Amendment enforcement power did not provide sufficient support for the law. Congress only had the power under section 5 to "enforce" the amendment, which forbade only discrimination by the state. Therefore, legislation outlawing a "private wrong" was beyond the enforcement power. The same limit applies to the enforcement power in section 2 of the FIFTEENTH AMENDMENT, for section 1 of that amendment is similarly interpreted to forbid only state abridgment of the right to vote.

Despite the holding of Civil Rights Cases, it has been settled that the Fourteenth Amendment gives Congress power to prohibit some behavior by private individuals. In UNITED STATES V. GUEST (1966) six Justices agreed to an OBITER DICTUM that Congress can "punish private conspiracies that interfere with fourteenth amendment rights, such as the right to utilize public facilities." That concept supports provisions of 1968 legislation that make it a federal crime for private individuals to deny others, "because of … race, color, religion or national origin," their rights to attend public schools or participate in programs provided or administered by the state.

It is less clear whether the holding of the Civil Rights Cases is still valid in denying Congress the power, under section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, to control private conduct that is not connected to any relationship between the victim and the states. No Supreme Court decision since Guest has spoken to that question. Because Congress has a wide range of other legislative powers available to it, this abstract question probably will not be answered in the foreseeable future. The CIVIL RIGHTS ACT OF 1964, for example, went further than the law invalidated in the Civil Rights Cases, outlawing discrimination by hotels, restaurants, and private employers. The 1964 Act was upheld, in Katzenbach v. McClung (1964), under Congress's broad power to regulate INTERSTATE COMMERCE. The commerce power also supports 1968 federal legislation regulating private housing discrimination.

One question concerning the scope of the Fourteenth Amendment enforcement power may be more than academic. In cases like NATIONAL LEAGUE OF CITIES V. USERY (1976) and GARCIA V. SAN ANTONIO METROPOLITAN TRANSIT AUTHORITY (1985), questions have been raised about the constitutionality of federal laws that impose obligations directly on state governments—for example, that the state pay its workers a minimum wage. It may be necessary to decide whether legislation imposing some obligations on state or LOCAL GOVERNMENTS can be sustained under the Fourteenth Amendment enforcement power. The Court has concluded in City of Rome v. United States (1980) that the three constitutional amendments enacted following the CIVIL WAR—the THIRTEENTH AMENDMENT, the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Fifteenth Amendment—"were specifically designed as an expansion of federal power and an intrusion on state sovereignty." Thus, constitutional limits on national power imposed to protect state sovereignty are inapplicable to legislation authorized by these amendments. In City of Rome the Court upheld federal VOTING RIGHTS legislation requiring the city to obtain approval of the United States ATTORNEY GENERAL before it could reduce the size of its city council.

The power to provide "remedies" to prevent violations of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments allows Congress to invalidate some state laws that courts otherwise would have sustained. State LITERACY TESTS for voters are a clear example. The Supreme Court upheld literacy tests as a requirement for voters in Lassiter v. Northampton County Board of Elections (1959). Federal voting rights laws, however, have since suspended all state literacy tests. The Court sustained that legislation in OREGON V. MITCHELL (1970). Congress could reasonably find that the states had used literacy tests to engage in racial discrimination. Even if literacy tests for voting did not themselves violate the Constitution, Congress decided that they were being used to violate the Fifteenth Amendment. Congress could then invalidate all literacy tests as a remedy to prevent racial discrimination in voting.

Modern cases have uniformly sustained federal laws enacted to provide broad remedies for possible violations of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. There has been more controversy concerning the question of whether Congress has power to interpret the guarantees of section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment. In KATZEN-BACH V. MORGAN (1965) the Court sustained a provision of the VOTING RIGHTS ACT OF 1965 that suspended literacy tests for voting in New York by persons who had completed six grades of school in Puerto Rico. The Court sustained that legislation, in part on the ground that Congress could decide that New York's literacy test law, which waived the test only for citizens who had completed six grades of school in the English language, violated the equal protection clause of section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment. Two dissenters argued that only courts could interpret the Constitution and warned that the power to interpret the Constitution's guarantees of liberty could authorize Congress to dilute those guarantees as well as amplify them.

The continuing authority of the interpretive theory of Katzenbach v. Morgan is now in some doubt. Amendments to the Voting Rights Act in 1970 extended the right to vote to eighteen-year-olds in both state and federal elections, interpreting the equal protection clause to declare that it was unconstitutional to deny them the right to vote because of their age. Different 5–4 majorities of the Court in Oregon v. Mitchell upheld the statute as applied to federal elections and invalidated it as applied to state elections. Four of the Justices would have upheld the statute in its entirety, while four would have held that Congress lacked the power to change the voting age in either state or federal elections. The specific issue of voting age has, of course, been mooted by enactment of the TWENTY-SIXTH AMENDMENT the following year. Since 1970 Congress has not relied on the interpretive theory in enactments enforcing the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.

19th amendment

1919 - 1920

The amendment guarantees all American women the right to vote. Achieving this milestone required a lengthy and difficult struggle; victory took decades of agitation and protest. Beginning in the mid-19th century, several generations of woman suffrage supporters lectured, wrote, marched, lobbied, and practiced civil disobedience to achieve what many Americans considered a radical change of the Constitution. Few early supporters lived to see final victory in 1920.

Between 1878, when the amendment was first introduced in Congress, and August 18, 1920, when it was ratified, champions of voting rights for women worked tirelessly, but strategies for achieving their goal varied. Some pursued a strategy of passing suffrage acts in each state--nine western states adopted woman suffrage legislation by 1912. Others challenged male-only voting laws in the courts. Militant suffragists used tactics such as parades, silent vigils, and hunger strikes. Often supporters met fierce resistance. Opponents heckled, jailed, and sometimes physically abused them.

By 1916, almost all of the major suffrage organizations were united behind the goal of a constitutional amendment. When New York adopted woman suffrage in 1917 and President Wilson changed his position to support an amendment in 1918, the political balance began to shift.

On May 21, 1919, the House of Representatives passed the amendment, and 2 weeks later, the Senate followed. When Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment on August 18, 1920, the amendment passed its final hurdle of obtaining the agreement of three-fourths of the states. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby certified the ratification on August 26, 1920, changing the face of the American electorate forever.

Children crusade

1963 - 1964

In the first week of May 1963, hundreds of African American students left the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and marched through the downtown toward City Hall. The Children's Crusade, as these marches came to be known, proved to be the culminating event in a two-month campaign orchestrated by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and led by Martin Luther King Jr. and local minister Fred Shuttles-worth to protest Birmingham's racial segregation. After several days of these marches, the city's police, under the famously belligerent Eugene "Bull" Connor's command, responded with force. Ultimately these violent clashes and the American public's opprobrium produced a victory for the protesters in Birmingham, where their local demands for integration of public facilities were met, and in Washington, DC, where the Kennedy administration began to throw its weight behind civil rights.

Section 5

1965 - 2031

Although the voting protections of the Fifteenth Amendment and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act are permanent,
Section 5 remains in effect through 2031.

Coverage Under the Special Provisions of the Voting Rights Act
Section 5 freezes election practices or procedures in certain states until the new procedures have been subjected to review, either after an administrative review by the United States Attorney General, or after a lawsuit before the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. This means that voting changes in covered jurisdictions may not be used until that review has been obtained.

The requirement was enacted in 1965 as temporary legislation, to expire in five years, and applicable only to certain states. The specially covered jurisdictions were identified in Section 4 by a formula. The first element in the formula was that the state or political subdivision of the state maintained on November 1, 1964, a "test or device," restricting the opportunity to register and vote. The second element of the formula would be satisfied if the Director of the Census determined that less than 50 percent of persons of voting age were registered to vote on November 1, 1964, or that less than 50 percent of persons of voting age voted in the presidential election of November 1964. Application of this formula resulted in the following states becoming, in their entirety, "covered jurisdictions": Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia, In addition, certain political subdivisions (usually counties) in four other states (Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, and North Carolina were covered. It also provided a procedure to terminate this coverage.

Under Section 5, any change with respect to voting in a covered jurisdiction -- or any political subunit within it -- cannot legally be enforced unless and until the jurisdiction first obtains the requisite determination by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia or makes a submission to the Attorney General. This requires proof that the proposed voting change does not deny or abridge the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group. If the jurisdiction is unable to prove the absence of such discrimination, the District Court denies the requested judgment, or in the case of administrative submissions, the Attorney General objects to the change, and it remains legally unenforceable.

In 1970, Congress recognized the continuing need for the special provisions of the Voting Rights Act, which were due to expire that year, and renewed them for another five years. It also adopted an additional coverage formula, identical to the original formula except that it referenced November 1968 as the date to determine if there was a test or device, levels of voter registration, and electoral participation. This additional formula resulted in the partial coverage of ten states.

In 1975, the special provisions of the Voting Rights Act were extended for another seven years, and were broadened to address voting discrimination against members of "language minority groups." An additional coverage formula was enacted, based on the presence of tests or devices and levels of voter registration and participation as of November 1972. In addition, the 1965 definition of "test or device" was expanded to include the practice of providing election information, including ballots, only in English in states or political subdivisions where members of a single language minority constituted more than five percent of the citizens of voting age. This third formula had the effect of covering Alaska, Arizona, and Texas in their entirety, and parts of California, Florida, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, and South Dakota.

In 1982, Congress extended Section 5 for 25 years, but no new Section 5 coverage formula was adopted. It did, however, modify the procedure for a jurisdiction to terminate coverage under the special provisions.

In 2006, Congress extended the requirements Section 5 for an additional 25 years.

The Voting Section is responsible for reviewing voting changes submitted to the Attorney General (15,000 to 24,000 changes each year) and for defending Section 5 declaratory judgments in court. The Voting Section also brings lawsuits to enjoin the enforcement of voting changes that have not received the required Section 5 review.

Almost all voting changes are submitted to the Attorney General, and over the past decade the Attorney General has received submissions of between 14,000 and 22,000 voting changes per year. The Attorney General may interpose an objection by informing the jurisdiction of the decision no later than 60 days after a voting change has been submitted. Most voting changes submitted to the Attorney General are determined to have met the Section 5 standard; since Section 5 was enacted, the Attorney General has objected to about one percent of the voting changes that have been submitted.

The Attorney General has published detailed guidelines that explain how to make Section 5 submissions and the process of how the Attorney General decides whether the jurisdiction has met its burden. Notices of Section 5 submissions are regularly posted to the Internet and can be mailed upon request to interested individuals, organizations and jurisdictions.

Voting Rights Act

August 6, 1965

The voting rights act was adopted initially in 1965 and extended 1970, 1975, 1982 and is considered the most successful piece of civil rights legislation ever adopted by the us constitution. The act puts in law the 15th amendment permanent guarantee that throughout the nation. The act was meant to restore the right to vote that intruded in matters previously reserved to individual states. The enforcement of the act has increased the opportunity of black voters to elect representatives of their choice which gave minorities voting strength.