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Who Can Vote?

Voting is perhaps the most fundamental act of democratic citizenship. In a democracy, our political leaders receive their mandate, and the system itself derives its legitimacy, from the people who elect them. In the United States, however, the right to vote has never been extended universally.

- Listen to the History Talk episode with Professors Daniel Tokaji and
Pippa Holloway on Partisan Gerrymandering here!

So who is a citizen?



They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order.

-Dredd Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1856)

“During the Constitutional Convention in 1787, as the delegates were considering how to allot representation for each state, the question arose: How to count the slave population? The Southern states were fearful that they would be overwhelmed in the House by the “large” states—Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. To increase their representation, the Southern states wanted their large number of slaves to be included in the population count. Of course, the large states did not want to relinquish their numerical advantage in the House. Many delegates argued slaves should not be counted at all—after all, they said, slaves are property, not persons… The result of the debate set forth in Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution was a compromise, incorporating ideas of both property and person: Population would be calculated by adding “the whole Number of free persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed,” plus “three fifths of all other Persons.” Those “other Persons,” of course, were slaves”


-Donald Applestein, Esq,
Read more about the debate over the
role of slaves in the early republic here!

“Black and white abolitionists in the first half of the nineteenth century waged a biracial assault against slavery. Their efforts proved to be extremely effective. Abolitionists focused attention on slavery and made it difficult to ignore. They heightened the rift that had threatened to destroy the unity of the nation even as early as the Constitutional Convention.”


-The Library of Congress,
Read more about the rise of the sectional crisis here!


“There were many differences of opinion between the North and the South in 19th-century America. Differences over slavery were the only ones they seemed unable to settle by peaceful means. Evidence from that time shows the secession of seven Deep South states was caused primarily by concerns over the future of slavery”


-The U.S. Department of the Interior,

Read more here!

“President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, as the nation approached its third year of bloody civil war. The proclamation declared "that all persons held as slaves" within the rebellious states "are, and henceforward shall be free."


-The National Archives,
Read more and see the Emancipation
Proclamation here!

“The Emancipation Proclamation committed the nation to ending slavery. Yet what would freedom mean? Economic independence? Freedom from fear? The right to vote? The U.S. Congress responded with a series of Constitutional amendments ending slavery, granting citizenship, and giving black men voting rights.”

-The National Museum of American History,

Read more here!

"[The Fourteenth Amendment, 186] declared all persons born in the United States and subject to its jurisdiction to be citizens of the United States and the states where they resided. And it barred states from abridging the rights of citizens; depriving any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law; or denying the any person the equal protection of the laws.


The first section of the Fourteenth Amendment revolutionized the constitutional system in three ways.


First, it made citizens of everyone born in the United States, except Indians subject to tribal rather than U.S. authority. (Congress did not make all Indians citizens until 1924.)…


Second, the Amendment for the first time set general national standards that the states had to meet when establishing and enforcing state laws. Third, the Fourteenth Amendment was phrased in a way that enabled state and federal courts to intervene when its provisions were violated."

- Dr. Michael Les Benedict,
Read more here!

“The 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870 partially as a response to southern states’ suppression of the black vote, 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.” Nevertheless, states found a variety of creative ways to deny black men the right to vote.”

- Dr. Pippa Holloway,
Read more here!

GIVE US THE BALLOT, and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights.


-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (May 15, 1957)

“In the former Confederacy and neighboring states, local governments constructed a legal system aimed at re-establishing a society based on white supremacy. African American men were largely barred from voting. Legislation known as Jim Crow laws separated people of color from whites in schools, housing, jobs, and public gathering places.


Denying black men the right to vote through legal maneuvering and violence was a first step in taking away their civil rights. Beginning in the 1890s, southern states enacted literacy tests, poll taxes, elaborate registration systems, and eventually whites-only Democratic Party primaries to exclude black voters.


The laws proved very effective. In Mississippi, fewer than 9,000 of the 147,000 voting-age African Americans were registered after 1890. In Louisiana, where more than 130,000 black voters had been registered in 1896, the number had plummeted to 1,342 by 1904.”

-Smithsonian National Museum
of American History
Read more here!

“Many brave and impassioned Americans protested, marched, were arrested and even died working toward voting equality. In 1963 and 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. brought hundreds of black people to the courthouse in Selma, Alabama to register. When they were turned away, Dr. King organized and led protests that finally turned the tide of American political opinion. In 1964 the Twenty-fourth Amendment prohibited the use of poll taxes. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act directed the Attorney General to enforce the right to vote for African Americans.


The 1965 Voting Rights Act created a significant change in the status of African Americans throughout the South. The Voting Rights Act prohibited the states from using literacy tests and other methods of excluding African Americans from voting. Prior to this, only an estimated twenty-three percent of voting-age blacks were registered nationally, but by 1969 the number had jumped to sixty-one percent.”

- The Library of Congress,
Read more here!

“In the decades after the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, felon disfranchisement served as the primary reason that otherwise eligible citizens were unable to vote.


Today, it is only one weapon in a growing arsenal of policies intended to attack voting rights. In recent years increasing numbers of states have required photo identification in order to vote as well as proof of citizenship in order to register to vote. States have also stepped up purges of voters who fail to vote in successive elections, charged voters who mistakenly register when they are ineligible with felony voter fraud, and more.


History shows us that unjust obstacles to voting have undermined our democracy in the past and suggests that such practices may threaten it in the future as well."

- Dr. Pippa Holloway,
Read more here!

Want more?

Race and Voting, Past and Present



A Right Deferred

–The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

What We Know About Voter ID Laws




No one tells us more about all the ways that power works than people excluded from its official halls: people of color, and women of all classes and races, among others. For them, power has different faces. We study women as we study other marginalized people because they tell us fresh stories of power — power wielded in more subtle but deeply transforming ways.


- Dr. Catherine Allgor,
Read more on First Lady Dolly Madison’s politics here!

“So women were not granted suffrage until the 20th century. And part of that was that there was a legal understanding of women's position in the US—It was actually taken from English common law and then appropriated in US law and the Constitution—and that understanding was called coverture. It meant that women were covered under the legal identity of their husband. So women cannot sue, they could not own (by herself) property, they could not enter into contracts. Essentially, husband and wife were considered one person as a legal entity. And so women were not given the right to vote initially, in part because it was assumed that the husband could vote, and the woman was covered by the man's vote.


And of course, some women, such as black enslaved women or native American women, were not given the vote at all because they were not considered citizens, right? In the case of enslaved women, because they were perceived as property; and, native American women, again because of a different type of legal categorization, but also because they were considered to be children, kind of legal children who didn’t have the intellect to participate in civic life.”


-Dr. Joan Flores-Villalobos,
Listen to the episode of Prologued about
women’s politics before voting here!

“Following the unexpected exclusion of women from the civil war amendments, women continued to expand their political influence and worked to effect both social and political change in society.

However, it quickly became clear to many of these women that the only way to truly have a voice in their society was through electoral power. Women began to push to gain suffrage themselves, ultimately leading to the bitter fight over the ratification of the nineteenth amendment and a crucial change in the legal role of women in American Society.

At the heart of this movement was a shared belief that women deserved to be full owners of their own citizenship and have the right to exercise that citizenship at the ballot box. But the suffragists agreed on little else.”


- Sarah Paxton,
Listen to the Prologued episode
on the suffrage movement here!



“[M]any Anti-suffragists argued that all the persuasive social and moral privilege afforded to women would be ruined if women became involved in the morally bankrupt work of electoral politics…


While these antisuffragists were concerned that they would lose moral superiority, many white women—particularly in the south—were worried that providing all women the right to vote, especially black women, would undermine their racial superiority.”


-Sarah Paxton,
Listen to the Prologued episode
on the anti-suffragists here!

“Because NAWSA couldn’t adequately support both campaigns, their state level work operated mostly through local civic clubs, folding the women’s club movement into their suffrage campaign. NAWSA President Elizabeth Catie Catt referred to this strategy as the “society plan,” as they used clubs focused on societal improvements to garner support from middle and upper class women of society.”


-Sarah Paxton,
Listen to the Prologued episode
on the suffrage movement here!

“On March 3, 1913, the day before President-elect Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, more than 5,000 women—young and old, rich and poor, educated and non-educated, (though mostly white)—marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to demand the right to vote. It remains the largest suffrage event in U.S. history. These women hoped to attain the vote during Wilson’s administration, and indeed they did.”

- Dr. Kimberly Hamlin,
Read more here!


“It was only when [The National Women’s Party] embarrassed President Woodrow Wilson in front of a visiting Russian delegation, whose wartime cooperation he was trying to secure, that the first six suffragists were arrested on charges of obstructing traffic.


Many U.S. women were thereafter imprisoned for suffrage activism. The violence they faced on the picket line (for holding signs saying “Kaiser Wilson” amid rabid anti-German sentiment, for example) and in jail, with forced feedings during hunger strikes, became international news.


By January 1918, international momentum compelled Wilson to announce his support for suffrage as he promoted the Unites States as a beacon of democracy.”


-Dr. Katherine Marino,
Read more here!

“After a number of false starts, the Nineteenth Amendment, with language modeled after the Fifteenth Amendment, passed the U.S. House of Representatives on May 21, 1919, and the Senate two weeks later. By then, fifteen states provided full voting rights to women, including New York and Michigan. Another group gave them partial voting rights (such as the right to vote in municipal elections or primaries). Only seven states barred women from voting entirely…


But perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Nineteenth Amendment is how relatively non-controversial it has been…


Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising. Adding women hugely expanded the electorate. A funny thing happens when new voters come along: Politicians start caring about their views. When politicians see that roughly half their constituents are women, they start caring immensely.”

-Nancy Gertner & Professor Gail Heriot,
Read more about the many debates
around the 19th Amendment here!

…my presence before you now symbolizes a new era in American political history…


-Shirley Chisholm, 1972

“Many women have sought to become President of the United States. A number received national attention, either as pioneers in the electoral process, as potential candidates, or as candidates of minor parties with a significant national presence. Others were from minor parties or were fringe candidates who entered major party primaries.”

-Center of American Women and Politics,

Read more here!


“Historical examples reveal, not surprisingly, that female candidates are held to a higher moral standard than are male candidates; they are much more heavily scrutinized in gender-biased ways by their colleagues, the media, and voters; they are often held accountable for the scandals of their husbands.


They tend to fare better when they run as feminine but tough on crime and/or pro-military, rather than as overtly feminist; and voters seem most comfortable with a Virgin Mary sort of female candidate—attractive and maternal, but not sexual.”


-Dr. Kimberly Hamlin,
Read more here!

“So in those hearings, Anita Hill accused [Clarence Thomas] of sexual harassment. There were certainly more attention to the fact that well, there weren't any women on the Judiciary Committee, why aren't there more women in Congress until you had women explicitly running on that? So Dianne Feinstein had an advertisement that said, you know, 2% is good enough for milk, but not for the number of women being representative legislature. There were only two women in the senate at that time. And so there was attention to the need for women in office, there was attention to issues of sexual harassment where there hadn't been before. So it's just a set of issues that made people think might be more women in elective office. But those issues were issues that tend to favor the Democratic Party and so you saw democratic women candidates getting elected.”


-Dr. Michele Swers,
Listen to the Prologued episode
about female candidates here!


“In 1992 women went to the polls energized by a record-breaking number of women on the federal ticket. Nationally, 11 women won major party nominations for Senate races while 106 women contended for House seats in the general election. The results were unprecedented. The 24 women who won election to the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time that November comprised the largest number elected to the House in any single election, and the women elected to the Senate tripled the number of women in that chamber by the start of the 103rd Congress. Dubbed the “Year of the Woman,” 1992 also marked the beginning of more than 20 years of remarkable achievements for minority women. Forty-seven of the 58 African-American, Hispanic-American, and Asian-Pacific-American women who have served in Congress were elected between 1992 and 2016”


-The U.S. House of Representatives,

Read more here!

And How Do We Prove It?


“'Voter ID' is shorthand for a requirement that voters show a poll worker some kind of document proving their identity so they can receive a ballot on Election Day. Exactly what documents are accepted depends on the state.”


-NCSL’s The Canvass,
Read more here!


“While voter ID has been one of the hottest topics in elections policy for the last several years, its legacy extends back to 1950.


That was when South Carolina became the first state to request that voters show some kind of identification document at the polls. No photo was required—just a document bearing the voter’s name. In 1970, Hawaii joined South Carolina with a voter ID requirement. Texas (1971), Florida (1977), and Alaska (1980) rounded out the first five. In some states the request was for an ID with a photo; in others, any document, with or without a photo, was fine. In all these states, provisions existed for voters to be able to cast a regular ballot even if they did not have the requested ID.


Over time, and with little fanfare, more states began to ask voters to present an identification document. By 2000, 14 states did so. These states had Democratic and Republican majorities.”


-The National Conference of State Legislatures, Read more here!


“The backstory of the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, which upheld Indiana’s voter ID law, requires a deep dive into national and Indiana politics. It is the tale of Kit Bond, a U.S. Senator from Missouri, who was deeply concerned about the election results in his state in 2000 and claimed that Republican John Ashcroft lost his U.S. Senate election race only because of voting by dead people and dogs. In response, Bond slipped a voter ID measure into the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002. This proved to be the initial catalyst for states like Indiana to go even further with their own stricter photo ID requirements.”


-Prof. Joshua A. Douglas,

Read more here!

“Here's the thing and I'm going to be brutally honest about this. What I've come to believe over time is that while these laws and practices have some effect, they're not as great as some of their opponents fear and some of their proponents probably hope. They do have some impact on turnout, especially a really strict voter ID law like the one that Texas adopted a few years ago. But we're talking about a few percentage points, maybe 2 to 5 percentage points at most.”


-Prof. Daniel Tokaji,
Listen to more here!


“Empirically, a small number of studies have employed suitable research designs and generally find modest, if any, turnout effects of voter identification laws. This may indicate that voter identification laws have only minor effects on turnout, or it may be due to the fact that the

type of voter identification law that may have the most significant effects—a strict photo identification law—is a relatively recent phenomenon. Future elections and the related additional data may make it possible to adjudicate among these possibilities.”


-Dr. Benjamin Highton,
Read more here!

“Taken together, our analyses support the notion that strict voter identification laws prevent otherwise eligible individuals from voting, and that such laws have disproportionately negative impacts on minority citizens.”


-Drs. Michael Miller & Bernard Fraga,
Read more here!


 “While the impact of these laws is debated, the intent is clear. In 2012, a Republican legislative leader in Pennsylvania made headlines by saying that the state’s voter ID law — which was later overturned by the courts — was “gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.” But even when the law’s authors are more circumspect about their motivations, the evidence is clear: It’s Republican legislatures and legislators that tend to pass them.


There’s also a racial dynamic: Seth McKee found that Republican legislators are more likely to back voter ID laws — and Democratic legislators less so — as their districts have more black voters. It’s also no accident that the states whose voter ID laws make headlines — Wisconsin, North Carolina, Virginia — are often swing states with diverse electorates.”


-Dr. Dan Hopkins,
Read more here!

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