The Right to Vote

In a democratic society, it is the citizens' responsibility to vote in elections; the vote of a street cleaner counts just as much as the vote of a millionaire. The right to vote is the right to determine who governs. For many years, however, large numbers of Americans were denied this basic right. Today, even with all the formal restrictions against voting eliminated, a significant percentage of Americans choose not to cast their ballots. Voter participation has generally declined since 1960.

The term suffrage, or franchise, means the right to vote. Under the Constitution, residency requirements and other qualifications for voting were set by the states. In the late 18th century, it was widely held that only the best-educated men of substance were capable of making the correct voting decisions; therefore, the right to vote was limited to white male property owners. Poor white men, women, and slaves were excluded.

Universal manhood suffrage

The first breakthrough in the crusade to end voting restrictions took place in the 1820s and 1830s, when many states revised and liberalized their constitutions. During this period, often called the "Age of the Common Man" or the "Age of Jackson," property qualifications and religious tests that denied the right to vote to Catholics and Jews were removed in some states. Universal manhood suffrage is a little misleading, because the franchise was denied to African Americans almost everywhere.

Expansion by amendment

The right to vote was extended through the amendment process. Under the Fifteenth Amendment (1870), a person could not be denied the right to vote because of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude." In theory, this applied to all African Americans and former slaves. The long campaign for women's suffrage, which began in the 19th century with such leaders as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, culminated in the Nineteenth Amendment (1920). The only state that gave 18-year-olds the right to vote was Georgia; all other states set the age at 21. During the Vietnam War, the sentiment grew that if 18-year-olds were old enough to die for their country, they were old enough to vote. The Twenty-sixth Amendment (1971) lowered the voting age to 18.