Right to Vote

Betty James holds a sign outside the Faith Community Baptist Church in Miami rallying chruchgoers to board a bus and vote early, 2012.
Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer, was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1994.
Voter registration at the Community Service Organization (C.S.O.). Cesar Chavez is the last person on the right, 1958.

Although the right to vote is a significant civic symbol and practice of a democratic society, the Founding Fathers did not explicitly state whether it is a right or a privilege, and voting registration and eligibility rules fell to the states.

The two great controversies about voting have been about sex and race. Even ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870, which provided for universal male suffrage and legalized the right of African-Americans to vote, did not prevent southern states from passing Jim Crow laws such as the poll tax and literacy tests, and using intimidation and physical violence to keep African-American men from voting. Nor did it grant women’s suffrage.

At the Seneca Falls convention of 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton remarked that the right to vote would make women “free as man is free.” Susan B. Anthony, Stanton’s contemporary, stated that to be free, a woman must have “a purse of her own.” In the early 20th century Alice Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt, among many others, started the first modern feminist movement in the U.S., which culminated in the passage of the 19th Amendment (1920), giving women the right to vote. However, Jim Crow racial segregation curtailed African-American men and women’s suffrage until the 1960s.

Protests against voting discrimination during the Civil Rights era reached a pinnacle on March 7, 1965, when 500 activists led a peaceful march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capitol in Montgomery. Six blocks into the march, state and local law enforcement attacked the demonstrators with billy clubs and tear gas and drove them back into Selma. This “Bloody Sunday” impelled President Johnson to push for Congressional hearings that produced the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Since existing federal anti-discrimination laws had been infrequently enforced by Southern officials, this Act prohibited the denial or abridgment of the right to vote.

In 2013, the Supreme Court essentially ruled on the question, “Do we still need the federal protection of the Voting Rights Act?” The Court in Shelby County v. Holder invalidated Section 4 of the Act, the centerpiece of that legislation. Chief Justice Roberts wrote that “things have changed dramatically” since 1965. States and municipalities were now free to change their election laws to require voter identification without advance federal approval.

Back to Top