Voting In America, The Past

polling-station-2643466_1920November 6th, better known as Midterm Election Day 2018, is right around the corner. I would like to take a moment to look at where we, as a nation, have come from in regards to voting rights, so that we can look at our own voting behavior today. Who gets to vote, and why? Elections are not about our present but are about the future, government works slowly. What happens today can have lasting effects for all of those living on planet Earth. We are a participatory Democracy and the cornerstone to participatory Democracy is civic knowledge. So let’s get a little learn on, U.S. government style.

The History of Elections in the United States of America

During the Colonial period, the rules governing who could vote and how one would go about voting were the purview of individual colonies and locations. Though we all answered to the British Parliament, which came crashing down in a fit of “No taxation without representation!” we still had local elections. The local election laws varied, one of the common voting regulations was: you had to be a taxpayer.  This definition also varied from location to location depending on how much land the white man owned, and whether it was commercial or private. Another local election law concerned religion – any non-protestants were denied the right to vote, so no Catholics or Jewish citizens. Sex and race were also factors in local election disenfranchisement, with not just African descendants being restricted but Chinese and Native Americans as well, no matter if they were male landowners or not. If you were not white, you didn’t try. In some lucky locations widowed landowners were allowed the right to vote, but women, as a majority, were silenced. This network of voting laws was maintained after the Revolutionary War, though some became more restrictive and others became less.

The framers of the Constitution purposely left language vague and sometimes non-existent in the belief that they would be able to ratify the whole document easily by leaving the laws on voting to the States. The mentality did change on who had the right to choose representation after the Revolutionary War, a war fought over taxation without representation and by the “common” folk. These were not hired militias or just the wealthy landowner class and it was argued, after the war, that they deserved the right to choose their representatives. On the flip side it was feared that if the poor classes were franchised that it would bolster the aristocracy. The poor were not to be trusted with the right to vote as they may sell that vote to the highest bidder. Between the late-18th century and the mid-19th century, municipalities did not have to have the same voting rights as the States. This could mean that one may be able to vote at the State and Federal level but not in local elections and vice versa (1). Could you imagine if some people were allowed to vote in the Federal election for say your congressmen but were not allowed to vote for your county commissioners, just on the basis of whether or not you own a home or piece of property?  

What is written into the Constitution regarding voting? In Article 1, Section 2, the founders lay out the law for when members of the House of Representatives will be chosen and what constitutes a person (which would determine the amount of representatives for each location).   Originally, this excluded Native Americans that were non-taxed and counted all non-free persons as three-fifths a whole, African American voting rights would be changed by the Fourteenth Amendment. In Section 3, the Constitution speaks to the elections of Senators, originally chosen by State Legislatures. Section 4 sends all other regulations regarding voting in the hands of the States. In Article 2, Section 1 the Constitution regulates Executive power and the role of electors, how they are chosen and who can be an elector thereby setting up the electoral college system that we still have today. The main body of the Constitution does not address the way that we vote, who can or cannot vote, this would change with the Reconstruction Amendments.

The Fourteenth Amendment (2) is where we first see the phrase: “nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” It is a common misconception that this idea of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness was codified into the Constitution from the onset, when, in reality, it is embedded in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. Overall, the Fourteenth Amendment changes the law in who is considered a citizen of the United States, how citizens are counted for means of representation, and restricts those that have taken up arms against the government. Within the amendment they excluded” “Indians not taxed.” The amendment opened the door for the Fifteenth Amendment that would follow guaranteeing the right of all citizens to vote regardless of: “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” It seems like the wording of the Fifteenth Amendment would cover voting rights of Indigenous people, but it did not. With the explicit wording of the Fourteenth Amendment barring “Indians not taxed” Congress ensured that only those Indigenous men that had moved off of reservations, were civilized and owned property of some sort would be granted the right to vote. Like all pieces of the Constitution the nitty-gritty of the amendment is fleshed out through laws passed by Congress and cases tested in the Supreme Court. The rights of Indigenous people would be tested in 1884 by the case of Elk vs Wilkins where: “the Court held that an American Indian from Nebraska did not necessarily have the right to citizenship, and thus the right to vote, under the Fourteenth [sic] Amendment.”(3) Indigenous people would not have the full rights to vote, for all tribal citizens, until 1924 when Congress passed a law guaranteeing the right of citizenship to all Indigenous people. In 1886, the Fourteenth Amendment would be tested for Chinese Americans with the case Yick Wo vs. Hopkins, where the court found that discrimination in the issuing of permits was unconstitutional.

But what about women? Abolitionists and Women’s Suffragists often worked closely during the time of the writing and passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments. The women’s movement split at this time between those that were demanding that one’s sex be included in the Fifteenth Amendment and those that did not want to push the envelope. It was decided that adding the rights of women would be a non-starter for several Congressman and State Legislatures. Women would have to wait another 50 years until the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony encouraged women across the country to register to vote, they were testing the limits of the Fifteenth Amendment. Anthony eventually was brought to court in the case United States vs. Susan B Anthony in 1873. Some states allowed widowed women to vote from Colonial times on, others, eventually, allowed women the right to own property, the right to contracts and to their children. In many municipalities, women were allowed to vote in School Board elections. Wyoming became the first state in the Nation to allow women the full right to vote in 1869.(4)

Next year, 2019, marks the centennial of the passage of the nineteenth amendment, “The right of citizens of the United States shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or and State on account of sex.” To think that in a Democratic nation, like the United States of America, that half of the people born into the nation did not have the right to vote for representation in over the first one-hundred and thirty years is mind blowing, especially since our fight for Independence was predicated on “no taxation without representation.” I am forever thankful to those that put their life on the line so that I can walk into a polling location today and cast a vote in favor of whomever I please.

We still had to face the ugly restriction of economy on the right to vote. It would not be until 1962 that it became unconstitutional to charge a poll tax or capitation tax with the passage of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. What is a poll tax? Poll taxes have been around one way or another since the beginning of democracies. Often they’ve been around as a means to keep the economically poor in society unable to vote. After the Revolutionary War, many states replaced restrictions on voting from landowners to those that could pay a poll tax. It became a popular means of raising revenue for states after the war. Once more and more states began lessening restrictions on those that could vote, poll taxes shifted and changed too. After the Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments – the so called “reconstruction amendments” – the only states that maintained poll taxes and or literacy exams were in the South. Once the Depression hit the United States, lawmakers in the South started to rumble about repealing poll tax laws, they began to notice that more poor white folks were being removed from the voter rolls due to lack of payment than those of African Americans. Throughout the history of poll taxes on the United States, it is often not just African Americans, but Indigenous peoples, women, and poor whites that were affected by them. (5)    

The most recent constitutional amendment regarding voting in the United States was passed in 1971, by a congress that was technically not at war but embroiled in the Vietnam conflict. Up until this point, any citizen had to be twenty-one years of age to vote, yet many of the boys going off to the jungles of Vietnam were just eighteen years old. This became a sticking point in a society that saw a generation of boys drafted to war and coming home in body bags. This idea of “old enough to fight, old enough to vote” was first raised by Franklin D. Roosevelt after he lowered the draft age to 18.(6) Though it would take another 30 years or so to become a reality. The passage of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment took some political wrangling to get to a vote but it only took a little over three months for the states to ratify.

Would you have been able to vote in 1800? I wouldn’t have. I am a married woman that owns property with my husband, but, thankfully, I am not a widow. I would not have had the right to vote until 1920, only if I made enough money to pay a poll tax. Thankfully, I am employed and my husband works too, we most likely could have floated the extra to voice our choice.   


Elections Today

National Trend 1789-Present
Historic Voter Turnout 

This is not just about the past, I have always believed that in order to know where you are, sometimes you must look behind. Thomas Jefferson once said, “We in America do not have a government by the majority. We have a government by the majority who participate.” This statement is as meaningful today as it was over two hundred years ago, though it may be meaningful in a different way. Those that could participate in early United States elections were limited by the law. Today, most citizens’ right to vote is protected by law, but participation rates have fallen to near frightening levels. People across that nation have become apathetic to an election system that some see as fraught with error and skewed to the hands of the wealthy, powerful, and partisan. We, as a nation, have been abandoning political parties at a near record level. In 2009, those identifying as Independents surpassed those that identify with either of the two major political parties with 35% Independent, 34% Democrat and 24 % Republican per a pew research article from 2015, Trends in Party Identification. 

These are “old stats” in today’s world of high speed politics. We are onto yet another election cycle, there have been reports by local news sources that the voter turnout for this midterm election year is on track to match voter turnout of Presidential election years. This is great for our participatory democracy, remember it is “rule by those that participate.” So, get on out there and partake in your civic duty, your ancestors would be proud.

One-stop early voting is happening right now all across the state. If you still need to register you must go to a one-stop voting location before November 3rd to register and vote on the same day, here is a link to all one-stop locations. You can also look up your voter registration before you go to make sure you are registered, even if you’ve voted before, as you check your registration you can get a sample ballot and find your local polling locations. The North Carolina State Board of Elections website has a wealth of official information regarding local voting. If you have any questions contact your county Board of Elections, the numbers are on the website. Now that you know, head out to the polls. Voting is not just about the present but about the future that we envision for ourselves and our loved ones.

For trusted, verified information on any topic please visit your local Public Library. Here is a list of resources that we have regarding the history of voting in the United States and resources to remain informed about government actions today:

Kanopy Links:

Voice of the People, Framework for Democracy series:


CQ Magazine:

Incisive policy analysis from CQ roll call, home of the best writers covering congress today. This is a vetted news source that is accessible with your Fontana Regional Library card and our online resources.


CQ Researcher:

In depth reports on today’s issues, also available through with your library card.


  1. Keyssar, Alexander. The Right to Vote: the Contested History of Democracy in the United States. Basic Books, 2000.
  2. This link is to Credo Reference, one of the many online resources the Fontana Regional Library offers its patrons. This is a citeible resource. In the age of “fake news” you can turn to your local library for vetted sources.
  3. The fourteenth amendment. (2016). In Grey House Publishing (Ed.), Constitutional amendments: encyclopedia of the people, procedures, politics, primary documents relating to the 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution (2nd ed.). Amenia, NY: Grey House Publishing. Retrieved from
  4.  Finkelman, Paul, Gordon Morris Bakken, Eric W. Rise, Peter Karsten, and Liann E. Tsoukas. “Law.” In Encyclopedia of the United States in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Paul Finkelman. Gale, 2000.
  5. “The Twenty-fourth Amendment.” In Constitutional Amendments, edited by Grey House Publishing. 2nd ed. Grey House Publishing, 2016.
  6.  “The Twenty-sixth Amendment.” In Constitutional Amendments, edited by Grey House Publishing. 2nd ed. Grey House Publishing, 2016.