THE VOTE: How We Got Here

It’s been a long road, reaching this place, step by painful step. Nor are we finished yet.

1789: The Constitution of the United States grants the states the power to establish voting requirements. States limit this right to property-owning or tax-paying white males, who are 6 percent of the population.

1790: The Naturalization Act allows “free white persons” (males) born outside the United States to become citizens, but this act and its successor Naturalization Act of 1795 do not grant the right to vote.

1792-1838: Free black males lose the right to vote in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

1792–1856: The abolition of property qualifications for white men is temporarily established, but only in Kentucky (in 1792) and North Carolina (in 1856) and only during the periods of Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democracy.

1828: The presidential election is the first in which non-property holding white males can vote in the majority of the states. By the end of the 1820s, state laws change in favor of what is termed “universal suffrage,” but actually is universal white male suffrage.

1830s: Voter turnout surges during the 1830s, approaching 80 percent of the adult white male population in the 1840 presidential campaign, and making poor white male voters a huge part of the electorate. (The last state to abolish property qualification is North Carolina in 1856, but taxpaying qualifications persist in five states in 1860: Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and North Carolina. They survive in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island until the 20th Century.)

1861–1865: The rebel Confederacy of the South secedes from the United States; the US Civil War.

1862: The Emancipation Proclamation.

1868: Citizenship is guaranteed to all (male) persons born or naturalized in the U.S. by the 14th Amendment, inviting expansions to voting rights in the future.

1870: The 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution bars states from denying the right to vote on grounds of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude”—males only.

1863-1877: The Reconstruction Era.

1877: In the post-Reconstruction era, the dismantling of enfranchisement begins immediately. Former Confederate states pass Jim Crow laws, “the Black Codes,” and amendments to disenfranchise African-American male voters and poor white male voters through poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and other restrictions, generally upheld by Supreme Court decisions to reinstate such discrimination. Previous biracial governments across the South fall. The Ku Klux Klan returns, along with rapes, lynchings, and terror.

1887: Citizenship is finally won by Native Americans, but only if they are willing to dissociate themselves from their tribe by the Dawes Act, making such males technically eligible to vote.

1913: The direct election of senators, established by the 17th Amendment, gives voters, as opposed to state legislators, the right to elect the U.S. Senate.

1920: Women, more than half the population of the United States, are finally guaranteed the right to vote by the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, after a century of fighting for it. In reality, the same restrictions that had blocked non-white men from voting now also block non-white women.

1924: All Native Americans win citizenship and the right to vote via the Indian Citizenship Act, regardless of tribal affiliation. Nevertheless, some Western states continue to bar Indigenous Americans from voting until 1948.

1943: This late, Chinese immigrants win the right to citizenship and the right to vote under the Magnuson Act.

1948: Arizona and New Mexico become the last states to extend voting rights to Native Americans, which had been opposed by some Western states in contravention of the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924.

1961: Residents of Washington DC win the right to vote in U.S. presidential elections, via the 23rd Amendment.

1962-1964: The Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren makes a series of landmark decisions, including that districts in the House of Representatives must be approximately equal in population, and that both Houses of the electoral districts in state legislative chambers must be roughly equal in population.

1964: Poll tax payment is prohibited from being used used as a condition for voting in federal elections (the 24th Amendment).

1965: The Voting Rights Act of 1965, designed to enforce voting rights guaranteed by the 14th and 15th Amendments, is considered to be the most effective piece of federal civil rights legislation ever enacted in the country. It protects voter registration and voting for racial minorities, was later extended to apply to language minorities, and corrects discriminatory election systems and districting throughout the country, especially in the South. Section 4(b)’s “coverage formula” is designed specifically to encompass jurisdictions that engage in egregious voting discrimination.

1966: Tax payment and wealth requirements for voting in state elections are prohibited by the Supreme Court.

1971: Adults age 18 through 21 win the right to vote through the 26th Amendment—in response to Vietnam war protests, which had argued that soldiers old enough to fight and die for their country were entitled to the right to vote.

1972: Requirement that a person reside in a jurisdiction for an extended period is prohibited by the Supreme Court.

1986: United States Military and Uniformed Services, Merchant Marine, other citizens abroad or on bases in the United States or aboard ship, win the right to vote (The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act).

1996-2008: Twenty-eight states change their laws on felon voting rights, largely to restore rights or simplify the process of restoration. State laws on felony disenfranchisement have since continued to shift back and forth, sometimes over short time spans in the same state, sometimes tethered to having to pay fees.

2006: The 1965 Voting Rights Act is extended for the fourth time by President George W. Bush.

2013: The Supreme Court rules 5 to 4 that section 4(b) of the historic 1965 Voting Rights Act (the “coverage formula” specifically designed to encompass jurisdictions that engage in egregious voting discrimination) is “no longer necessary” and is unconstitutional, thus gutting the Act. Just as in the post-reconstruction era, Southern and some Western states again immediately revive voter suppression laws and tactics, which are currently being fought by voter-rights activists in the lower courts and via legislation.

It’s taken a long, long time to get to this place—and youth suffrage is still not fully included. I see no reason to discriminate against under-18 adolescent voters or, for that matter, to disenfranchise voters above the age of 10. It’s their future, after all. If the legalese seems overly complex, then simplify the language (for everyone’s sake!). Otherwise, the same defensive or dismissive arguments against youth suffrage are still being made today as were made against women’s suffrage.

The road we’ve had to trudge is a bitter and lengthy one, yes. The martyred lie buried along the sides of this road, the 90 percent of Indigenous peoples slaughtered by European-borne infectious diseases against which they had no resistance and force-marched far away from the lands they loved. You can see them, step by hurtful step, those who were abducted and enslaved and indentured; you can hear the echoes of spirituals and screams from people holding hands while water cannons were trained on them—and then teargas and truncheons and bullets; on immigrants seeking freedom and refugees seeking peace; on those who were jailed and beaten, raped, force-fed, interned; on those who built this country—its plantations, its railroads, its highways and skyscrapers, its White House. This road is paved with weariness, slick with blood, wet with tears.

But we have come this far.

So refuse to be gulled by smoke and mirrors; wait for the official count from the Associated Press. We have won through to this place. We can afford to hold on a bit longer.

Because this, now, is your power.

This is your vote.