Voting for the US Presidential Elections 2016 has started and the first polls will close early on Wednesday (5:30 am IST). The US is the oldest democracy in the world. But voting rights are still not guaranteed to every American. There are at least 247 million eligible voters for this presidential elections. However, the evolution of voting rights in the US is also a fascinating study. Here’s a walk through history on voting rights in the US.
The US declaration of independence was signed in 1776. During that colonial and revolutionary era, voting rights were restricted for property owners who were white, male, protestants and over 21 years of age. The state of New Jersey in its constitution the same year guaranteed franchise to all adult inhabitants of the state given they qualify for the minimum holding of property condition (Property during the time included real estate, slaves, land, cattle etc).
The American constitution was adopted in this year but the Constitutional Congress was unable to come to a consensus on the issue of a federal voting standard. Hence, the power to regulate voting rights was left for states and that meant that those rights mostly remained with white male property owners.
Three years later the US passed a law governing the process of naturalisation. It held that only free white men could be naturalised as citizens of the United States and only they alone will be eligible for voting rights among immigrants.
Two years later, New Hampshire became the first state in America to remove the mandatory requirement for property ownership to be eligible for voting rights. This extended the right to vote for most of the free white males in the state.
Under the rule of President Thomas Jefferson, the US this year saw the renewal of a law in New Jersey denying women their right to vote. From that year on, till 1920, women in America did not have the right to vote in any state.
Legislation is passed enfranchising Jews. The legislation removed any religion parameters for granting voting rights. Therefore, the state couldn’t deny voting rights to white men anymore.
This was an eventful year for the universal franchise movement. When the Marxist movement was picking up in Europe, America was also witnessing a social upsurge. Anti-slavery activists united with women’s rights activists in 1848. A convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York state on women’s rights. A former slave and newspaper editor named Frederick Douglass was present at the convention and delivered a speech that backed universal franchise. After the speech, the convention adopted a resolution which supported the right to vote for women.
The same year, the American-Mexican war was brought to an end after signing the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. The treaty guaranteed American citizenship to all Mexicans who were living in US-conquered Mexican territories. However, voting rights were denied on the grounds of requirement to know the English language and factors like violent intimidation.
All states gave all white men the right to vote. North Carolina became the last state to remove property ownership requirements in 1856 for voting.
The 14th amendment to the US constitution was passed which cleared the definition of citizenship. It mandated that no state can deny any rights of citizenship. The power to regulate voting rights was, meanwhile, still in the hands of the states. The amendment made former slaves eligible for citizenship in the country. Women still didn’t have the right to vote.
Although the year witnessed passage of the landmark 15th amendment in America that stated either federal or state governments can’t deny voting rights to men on the basis of race. This made the African American population eligible to vote. However, a rider was involved. Voting taxes were imposed on African Americans, literacy tests were done as mandatory requirements, violent intimidation was used and other measures taken to indirectly take away their right to vote as even though the free black male community was eligible to vote, they were not educated or financially well off to fulfil all the requirements.
Victoria Woodhull was the first woman to run for US presidency. She ran for the top seat in 1871. Although the legality of her nomination came into question due to the minimum age of 35 years for running for presidency (Woodhull was 34 during the time), it’s documented that age parameters were not followed religiously during the time. During the time, interestingly, women could run for presidency, but they did not have the right to vote.
Also, Grand Rapids, Michigan, the place where Republican runner Donald Trump held his final election rally is an iconic town due to the resistance of women and their attempts to cast their ballot in the Presidential elections. A woman named Sojourner Truth reached a polling booth on presidential polling day and demanded a ballot to vote. She was turned away but her attempt created a big buzz. On the same day, Susan Anthony, a resident of Rochester, New York, attempted to vote at a polling booth. She was arrested and brought to trial.
This year a loophole was exposed in the 14th amendment. Native Americans were denied their right to vote as they were natives and didn’t qualify as citizens according to the definitions laid down in the 14th amendment.
Chinese Exclusion Act is passed. The acts prohibits naturalisation of any individual of Chinese descent as American citizens.
The Dawes Act was passed in this year that gave citizenship rights to native Americans if they were willing to give up their affiliations to their tribes.
Newly admitted Wyoming is the first American state to legislate women’s voting rights in its constitution. Also, the native American naturalisation was made similar to the immigrant naturalisation process–after their formal application is approved by the authorities.
Women’s rights movements attained massive pitches compared to the past and women marched on streets in New York and Washington DC to demand their right to vote.
Native Americans who served in the US army in the first world war are given citizenship by the US govt.
During the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, this momentous year in the history of US democracy saw the passage of the 19th amendment which guaranteed the right to vote for women in state as well as federal elections.
The US Supreme Court held that the people of Japanese descent were not eligible for citizenship. The following year it also held that Asian Indians were ineligible for citizenship.
The Indian Citizenship Act is passed in 1924 that gives citizenship to Native Americans but many states pass policies and legislations that obstruct them from them their right to vote. In terms of women, till this time only white women were allowed to vote. In 1926, a group of African-American women in Birmingham, Alabama were beaten up brutally by election officials for trying to register as voters.
A Native American name Miguel Trujillo, who was also a retired Marine soldier, took the state of New Mexico to court for not letting him exercise his voting right. After he won the case, New Mexico and Arizona, two states that were holding out the rights to Natives, had to grant it to all Native Americans.
The McCarran Walter Act was passed during this year that made all Asians eligible for citizenship and after naturalisation, voting rights.
Curiously, the citizens of Washington D.C. don’t have a Congressional representative. Also, it was only in 1961 that the 23rd Amendment gave the Washington D.C. citizens the right to vote. Historically, population of African-Americans has hovered around the 50 per cent mark in the US Capital.
The civil rights movement picked up steam. Thousands of civil rights activists of the Freedom Summer movement converged on the South to demand voting rights for African Americans to be guaranteed as civil rights. Till now, African Americans were denied their right due to violent intimidation and restrictions like literacy tests and taxes on voting.
The 24th amendment is passed which mandated that the voting rights will not be denied if a citizen fails to pay taxes. Voting taxes were repealed throughout the country.
After as many as 189 years of independence, America passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The law took away all discriminatory powers away from states meant to deny voting rights to individuals. It also laid down provisions to strictly implement it across the US.
Even after the passage of the law, social change was not immediately seen. Civil rights struggle continued. Activist James Meredith was shot in between the Walk Against Fear–a march between Tennessee and Mississippi for encouraging voter registration. Over 4,000 black Americans came out the next day to register as voters. Other prominent leaders of the civil rights movements like Martin Luther King Jr. and Stokely Carmichael carried on with the march as Meredith recuperated after his injury. The latter joined the formers during the culmination of the march in Mississippi.
After wide protests following the Vietnam war, the minimum voting age was reduced to 18 years. The argument given was that if 18-year-olds were old enough to fight a war then they were old enough to vote in elections as well.
Another change was brought to the Voting Rights Act. The new change read that voting material during the election must be made in certain language apart from English so that voters who are not familiar with the English language are also able to understand the material and cast their vote properly.
The National Voter Registration Act is passed which makes voter registration facilities available at offices of the Department of Motor Vehicles, and public assistance and disabilities agencies. The move initiated during the Bill Clinton presidency was aimed at making the voter registration process easier and increasing the registered voter pool.
TIll this year, the people eligible to vote in the US included White men and women, Native Americans, African-Americans, Asians, Citizens over 18 years of age. Citizens of American colonies were still not eligible to vote.
Barely a month before the presidential election, a federal court held that the 4.1 million people living in American colonies like Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands, American Samoa and Guam are citizens but are not eligible to vote. They do not have the right to vote in presidential elections and do not have Congressional representation as well.
A massive debate started over the issue of allowing convicted felons to regain their voting rights after they complete their prison sentence. The recommendation was made by the National Commission on Federal Election Reform. Till this time, around 4 million American citizens could not exercise their voting right because they had a history of felony convictions. Even now, in many states, especially the southern states, convicted felons are not allowed to vote during their sentence or when they are out on parole. In the American social demographic, one can see that most of the convicted felons are of colour and financially weak.
Continuing with post-civil war practices to stop black Americans from voting, the people with criminal records are prohibited from voting in any election in these states. A total 5.85 million Americans with past criminal records are not eligible to vote in this Tuesday’s polling as well due to life ban on voting for these people in states like Kentucky, Virginia and Iowa, Florida where disenfranchisement laws are imposed for offences that may not even draw custodial sentences.
Help America Vote Act is passed in response to the controversial 2000 election which came under allegations of calculated exclusion of voters through life bans on voters with criminal records. The act started massive voter reforms which included electronic voting, provisional ballots, computerised voting lists that would be centralised, access for the disabled and mandating that first time voters must present a voter id before voting.
Military and Overseas Empowerment Act is passed. It eases troops and American expats to cast their vote through absentee ballots and allowing requests to be made via mail or email.
The most recent reform took place three years ago. The American Supreme Court struck down a part of the Voter Registration Act to ensure fair political representation of minorities. The court said that lawmakers will need to take prior federal permission for changing any voting regulations in states that have a history of discrimination against minority voters.