Who Gets To Vote?
by Geri Zabela Eddins
Today all U.S. citizens who are at least eighteen years old and not incarcerated are guaranteed the right to vote. However, voting rights were initially a privilege given to a small, elite part of the population. In fact, until the mid 1850s, only twenty-one-year-old white men who owned land (and who were not a member of certain religions) could vote. For many years Americans were denied the right to vote based on their race, gender, religion, age, economic status, and place of residence. Here’s a brief summary of how voting rights have increased over the years:
- In 1776 all white men who own property have the right to vote, except for Catholics, Jews, and Quakers.
- In 1856 North Carolina becomes the last state to remove the restriction that prevents citizens who do not own property from voting, so now all white men who are not convicted criminals can vote.
- In 1870 Congress ratifies the Fifteenth Amendment, which guarantees all non-white men the right to vote. However, this right was often denied through intimidation and the imposition of poll taxes, which many could not pay.
- Women are granted the right to vote in 1920 via the Nineteenth Amendment.
- Native Americans can vote in 1924 when Congress grants full U.S. citizenship to all Native Americans via the Indian Citizenship Act. This Act declares all Indians who have not yet been granted citizenship through marriage, military service, treaties, or other specialized laws and who were also born within the U.S. to be citizens, giving them the right to vote. However, many Native Americans continue to be denied the right to vote by states until 1948.
- The 1952 Immigration Act eliminates race as a basis for naturalization, enabling immigrants from Japan, China, and other Asian countries to become American citizens, and therefore be allowed to vote. Earlier legislation, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, had banned Asians from immigrating to the U.S.
- Residents who live in the District of Columbia are granted the right to vote in 1961 by the Twenty-third Amendment.
- Poll taxes are prohibited by the Twenty-fourth Amendment in 1964 to ensure no poor American is denied the right to vote because of an inability to pay.
- In 1965 the Voting Rights Act is signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. This law eliminates election practices, such as literacy tests, that have been used to suppress voting by minorities.
- In 1971 Congress ratifies the Twenty-sixth Amendment, which guarantees that all U.S. citizens who are eighteen years old can vote. Previously, Americans had to be twenty-one years old to vote.
Even though voting rights have expanded substantially over the years, many people do not execute their right to vote. Beginning in the 1960s the percentage of people voting began to decrease. The 2000 presidential election attracted the most voters in years—over 54 percent of those eighteen and older. The voting rate increased to over 60 percent in the 2004 election, with much of the increase attributed to younger Americans. More voters cast their votes in the 2008 election, which raised the voting rate to over 61 percent. This increase was due to votes from Hispanic, African-American, and Asian voters. The voting rate dropped, however, in the 2012 presidential election when only 58.6 percent of eligible voters chose to vote. However, 2016 experienced another increase in participation when over 60 percent of eligible voters went to the polls to exercise their right to vote.
People provide many excuses for not voting. Poor weather keeps some people from going to the polls, but many people simply do not believe that his or her vote counts. But it does—every single vote counts!
For nonpartisan information about voting rights and election procedures, refer to the League of Women Voters’ website: lwv.org.
For “one-stop” access to election-related information, including factual data about candidates and how to locate your polling place, check out: Vote411.org.
Read the complete text of the Constitutional amendments that expand voting rights at these links:
Discussion Questions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
- Do you believe it is important to vote? Why or why not?
- As of 2012, only 67 percent of eligible voters were registered to vote in the United States, but 95 percent of eligible voters were registered in Canada and Mexico. Why do you think so many Americans choose not to register? Do you believe it is important to vote? Why or why not?
- Why do you think some people choose not to vote? Is it acceptable not to vote? What are some sensible reasons for not voting?
- Many people do not believe that his or her vote counts even though a number of elections have been decided by extremely slim margins. Why does every single vote count? Or does it?
- How can young people who are not yet old enough to vote make their voices heard? What can young people do to encourage eligible friends and family members to register and vote?
- Some people think that voting for a third party candidate (someone who is not a Democrat or Republican) is wasting their vote. What do you think?
Activity Suggestions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
- Host a mock election in your home or classroom. Your “election” can focus on actual candidates who are running for office, or you may choose to vote on favorite books, athletes, or TV characters. Young people may choose to engage in typical campaign activities, such as advertising, speeches, and debates to promote their “candidates” before they actually vote. Consider having some students report on the campaign and election results by addressing the school during morning announcements, writing articles for your school newspaper, and producing video reports.
- Check out kid-friendly election coverage, classroom activities, lesson plans, and games at Scholastic’s election resources page.
- Find classroom activities and resources prepared by Project Vote Smart at: VoteSmart.org
The League of Women Voters. Choosing the President. New York: Lyons, 1999.
Editor’s Note: Website links listed in angle brackets are no longer available.
“Constitution of the United States Amendments 11-27.” September 2008.
“Electing the President: A Guide to the Election Process.” 27 January 2012
“Election Turnout in 2004 Was Highest Since 1968.” 16 September 2008.
“Immigration Act of 1952” by Jane Hong. 3 August 2020. http://encyclopedia.densho.org/Immigration_Act_of_1952/
“League of Women Voters.” September 2008.
McDonald, Michael P. 2012. “Voter Turnout” United States Elections Project. 25 January 2012.
“Native American Citizenship: 1924 Indian Citizenship Act.” 28 September 2008.
“Post-Election 2016 Recap & Resources.” 20 September 2019. https://guides.libraries.psu.edu/post-election-2016/voter-turnout
“Third Parties Speak Out. Two-party system offers no real choice, says former Republican candidate Ron Paul.” 16 September 2008.
“Voter Turnout in Presidential Elections.” UC Santa Barbara (American Presidency Project). 4 May 2013.
“Voter Turnout Increases by 5 Million in 2008 Presidential Election, U.S. Census Bureau Reports.” U.S. Census Bureau. 25 January 2012.
“Voting and Registration.” U.S. Census Bureau. 8 February 2016.
“Voting Rights Timeline.” September 2008.
“Why foreign election observers would rate the United States near the bottom.” 16 September 2008.
©2020 Geri Zabela Eddins; The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance