During colonial times, the right to vote (also known as being enfranchised) was severely limited. Mostly, adult white males who owned property were the only people with the right to vote. Women could not vote, though some progressive colonies allowed widows who owned property to vote. After the United States gained its independence from Great Britain, the Constitution gave the states the right to decide who could vote. Individually, the states began to abolish property requirements and, by 1830, adult white males could vote. Suffrage (the right to vote) has been gradually extended to include many people, and the U.S. Constitution has been amended several times for this purpose. A time line of major developments in U.S. voting rights contains at least the following seventeen events:
- 1789: The first presidential election is held, electing George Washington by unanimous vote of the country’s “electors,” a group of mostly white male landowners.
- 1868: The Fourteenth Amendment declares that any eligible twenty-one year old male has the right to vote.
- 1870: The Fifteenth Amendment says that the right to vote cannot be denied “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” thus extending the right to vote to former (male) slaves.
- 1876: Wyoming becomes a state, and is the first state to give voting rights to women.
- 1884: The U.S. Supreme Court rules “grandfather clauses” unconstitutional.
- 1890: Southern states pass laws designed to limit the voting rights of African Americans. Some of the laws require voters to pay a poll tax or to prove that they can read and write.
- 1920: The U.S. Supreme Court rules that since Native Americans who live on reservations pay no state taxes, they cannot vote.
- 1920: Women gain the vote when the Nineteenth Amendment declares that the right to vote cannot be denied “on account of sex.”
- 1947: A court ruling grants Native Americans the right to vote in every state.
- 1961: The Twenty-third Amendment establishes that the citizens of the District of Columbia have the right to vote in presidential elections. D.C. is given 3 electoral votes.
- 1964: The Twenty-fourth Amendment declares that the states cannot require citizens to pay a poll tax in order to vote in federal elections.
- 1965: Voting Rights Act bans literacy tests as a voting requirement and bars all racist voting practices in all states.
- 1971: The Twenty-Sixth Amendment lowers the voting age to 18 and gives all Americans the right to vote.
- 1975: Additions to the Voting Rights Act require translations of all election materials to be made available for non-English speaking citizens.
As this list illustrates, suffrage has been expanded to include a greater number of people belonging to diverse demographic groups based on age, sex, and race. Without a doubt, the most dramatic and controversial developments in the history of U.S. voting rights expansion involves the movement to grant suffrage to women and African Americans. For African Americans, this includes a long history of ensuring unimpeded access to the polls in order to exercise their constitutional right to vote. For women, gaining suffrage was a very long struggle as well.