The US Constitution has several Constitutional Amendments that concern voting rights. Over time, as America promoted greater civil liberties for all its citizens, voting rights have also undergone change. The main Amendments that concern suffrage or voting rights for all people are the following: Amendment 15, Amendment 19, Amendment 24, and Amendment 26.
When the United States formed, citizens with voting rights were primarily white males. Freed black men could also vote, but slaves were considered property — not citizens — and therefore disallowed the vote. Furthermore, states could administer poll taxes, which sometimes left poorer people without the ability to vote if they could not afford the tax. Women did not have voting rights. Voters in most states also had to be 21 before being granted the right to vote.
The first Amendment to try to address these inequities was Amendment 15, ratified in 1870. For the first time, blacks were considered as voting citizens, and no citizen of any nationality could be denied the right to vote based on race. Despite this Amendment, there were areas of the country that would not allow blacks to vote if they couldn’t prove they could read or write. It took the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to ban this unfair practice, thus truly opening up the voting process to all African American citizens.
Amendment 19 came as the result of the incredibly long battle for women’s suffrage. It was passed in 1920 and gave all citizens the right to vote regardless of gender. Still, voting rights were denied to those who couldn’t pay poll taxes. Citizens who were impoverished waited until 1964 for the passage of the 24th Amendment, which abolished poll taxes, creating greater class equity in the voting system.
The last constitutional Amendment to address voting rights was Amendment 26, passed in 1971. This extended the vote to anyone 18 years of age or older. Impetus for this Amendment was largely the result of the huge youth movement at the time. With the war in Vietnam raging, and the age of the draft set at 18, many argued that it was a violation of rights to ask people to fight a war when they were not voting citizens. The strength of the youth movement also offered a new opportunity for young adults to become politically involved. An organized vote among college-aged students can significantly impact elections.
Another Amendment that changed the process of voting was the 17th. This Amendment called for the direct election of senators. Prior to its passage, the voting public did not have a direct way to select their representatives in the Senate. Many people are only vaguely aware of the hard fought battle for votes, beginning with the history of the United States and the Revolutionary War. Despite the demand for these rights, many still fail to vote or consider voting unimportant or pointless. Both major political parties have taken many steps toward increasing voter turnout so that more people participate in this basic right of all citizens.