AP Test Prep: The Expansion of Suffrage

Suffrage is the right to vote, and, in a sense, the history of the United States is the story of the expansion of that right. The founders were extremely wary of democracy as they understood it, and believed that only men of substance should have a say in who ran the government. Voting rights in the early republic were limited to white male property owners. Beginning in the 1790s and continuing through the 1820s, the states adopted new constitutions that eliminated these property qualifications. The results were seen quickly. While less than 400,000 Americans voted in 1824, the number jumped to over a million just four years later.

African Americans were excluded from the franchise; even free blacks in the North were not allowed to vote before the Civil War. The Fifteenth Amendment (1870) prohibited the federal government and the states from denying the right to vote on the basis "of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." In the South, however, literacy tests, the poll tax, and the grandfather clause were used to keep African Americans largely disenfranchised. The struggle for the vote in the South lasted well into the twentieth century, and involved the Supreme Court, Congress (Voting Rights Act of 1965), and a constitutional amendment that finally outlawed the poll tax (Twenty-fourth Amendment, 1964). The vote was also at the top of the agenda for the women's rights movement.

While unsuccessful in getting the word "gender" added to the Fifteenth Amendment, women's suffrage was the rule in the West by 1910 through state legislation. On the eve of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment (1920), which extended the full franchise to all women, only twenty states denied women some participation in the electoral process.

Two other amendments are important to the expansion of suffrage. In 1913, the Seventeenth Amendment gave eligible voters rather than the state legislatures the right to elect senators. The direct election of senators removed one of the last anti-democratic vestiges from the Constitution. Although there were several exceptions, one of which was that the voting age in the United States was long set at 21. That is the age, for example, recognized in Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment. In the early 1970s, with the war in Vietnam generating protests by young people, the argument grew that if 18-year-olds were old enough to fight for their country, they were old enough to vote. The Twenty-sixth Amendment (1971) lowered the voting age to 18.