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Your Right to Vote – A Brief History

Article by Stewart Guss

The right to vote in these United States is at once both our greatest privilege and our most important responsibility. For over 200 years brave patriots have shed their blood to support and defend our democracy. Given the importance of the upcoming elections, I would hope that everyone who is eligible to vote will do so. Unfortunately, the U.S. has one of the lowest voter participation levels of any democracy in the world. Perhaps a brief exploration of the long, hard fought struggle toward the universal right to vote will provide a bit of incentive to make it to the ballot box next month.

As some of my readers may know, when this country was formed, only white male property owners had the right to vote. In fact, several colonies even had religious requirements to vote, some of which lasted until 1790! Gradually, over the first half of the 19th century, the requirement of property ownership was abolished. As is often the case, sometimes these restrictions were not lifted without a fight. In 1842, the Dorr war was fought in Rhode Island over this very issue. For his troubles in leading the fight for non-property owners to obtain suffrage, Thomas Dorr was found guilty of treason in 1844 and sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor (although he was pardoned the next year.)

After the civil war, in 1870, the 15th Amendment was ratified guaranteeing the right of U.S. citizens to vote without regard to race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Tragically, another century would pass before persons of color could fully begin to claim this right. During reconstruction, the idea of a black man voting was intimidating to many both in the north and the south, and downright blasphemous to some. Many schemes were devised to keep blacks from voting, including poll taxes, literacy tests and cumbersome registration requirements. Blacks, of course, were not the only once excluded from the vote. Many western states denied the right to vote to Asian-Americans as well.

Through the 1950s, many southern states retained poll taxes and literacy tests designed to disenfranchise blacks. In Alabama, for example, prospective voters were required to provide written answers to a 20 page test including questions such as: “Name the rights a person has after he has been indicted by a grand jury.” While the Civil Rights Act of 1957 assisted enforcement of voting rights, black voter registration in the south was only increased by around 200,000, a mere fraction of the eligible black population.

In 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr. launched a voter registration drive in Selma Alabama. At that time, blacks slightly outnumbered whites in the city, but the voter roles were 99% white. Despite their best efforts, stiff resistance from the racist and segregationist establishment successfully prevented even a single black voter from being added to the rolls.

Dr. King’s heroic work, however, stirred the nation. On January 23, 1965, the 24th Amendment was passed banning the use of the poll tax. Later that year, President Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act, eliminating all literacy tests and empowering the federal government to oversee and enforce voting rights as necessary. While many feel that voting rights are still not equal to this day, there is no doubt that the work of Dr. King and the subsequent Voting Rights Act has substantially narrowed the gap between black and white voter registration in the south.

Of course, no discussion of voting rights would be complete without reference to the long struggle for women’s suffrage. The practical start to this fight started in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848 when America’s first women’s rights convention took place. Susan B. Anthony and other supporters of women’s suffrage attempted to vote in the 1872 presidential election. As a result, in 1875, the U.S. Supreme Court (Minor v. Happersett) held that women could only vote as a result of legislation or constitutional amendment. Over the next several decades “suffragettes” such as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucy Stone continued to fight for a woman’s right to vote. Fueled, in part, by the political atmosphere created during World War I, women finally won suffrage. On August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified which guaranteed 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 sex.” This was not the only battle for suffrage influenced by war. At the height of the Vietnam war, on July 1, 1971, the 26th Amendment was ratified lowering the voting age to eighteen.

The point of my article this month is simple: Do NOT take your right to vote for granted. Too many great Americans have fought too hard and too long for this valuable right to be wasted. The best way to thank those who have fought for our rights for the last 200 years is to stand up and make sure your vote is counted.

About the Author

Written by Stewart Guss (attorney at law) the owner of article can be reproduced in whole or in part, providing this byline is included along with a followable link to

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