We all remember that in the beginning (of our country, that is), the vote was reserved for white male property owners only. Sure, we can look back and say, "That was awful," and look down our noses at the "unenlightened" Founders as examples of racism and sexism and other -isms. But we must keep in mind that the conditions then were different than today, and we must be careful not commit the mistake of "presentism" when evaluating another time in history.
The theory back then was that only property owners should vote because they were the ones who had "skin in the game" - in other words, they were the ones paying taxes and funding the government, so they should be the ones making the decisions. In a way, it makes sense, but as time went on, more and more people, naturally, wanted to vote and have a say in their own governance. The first step in that direction was the Fifteenth Amendment (which we previously discussed here), removing race as an impediment to voting. I could easily have included the Fifteenth Amendment in this entry, but thought it more properly belonged in the grouping of the Civil War and Reconstruction amendments. So, let's begin with the Nineteenth Amendment and go chronologically...
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Perhaps the most famous - and among the shortest in the number of words - of the voting amendments is the Nineteenth, which removed gender as a barrier to voting. Note that I do not say, "It gave women the right to vote," because it did not. As with every other part of the Bill of Rights and the amendments, it merely lifted a barrier to the exercise of a right that was already assumed to exist. Read the first line again to help you understand this.
As we discussed above, white male property owners were the "original" voters. Then the Fifteenth Amendment removed race as an impediment to voting, but that had an effect only on black males. Fully half the population was still locked out of the voting booth. There are tons and tons of books and great research on the women's suffrage movement, and I won't do justice to their story in a blog, but it interesting to see that a newly-released movie ("Suffragette") with an all-star cast celebrates this achievement. You can read about it here.
On a much lighter note, who doesn't love "Mary Poppins" and the song "Sister Suffragette"?
The Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920, when the 36th state gave its approval. (If I may indulge in a little hometown cheerleading, my home state of Wisconsin was the first to ratify.) Twelve more states eventually voted in favor, making it unanimous (Alaska and Hawaii were not states at the time), though the last to cast its vote in favor of the amendment was Mississippi in 1984.
No other amendment removed voting barriers from more people than the 19th.
Section 1. The District constituting the seat of Government of the United States shall appoint in such manner as the Congress may direct:
A number of electors of President and Vice President equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives in Congress to which the District would be entitled if it were a State, but in no event more than the least populous State; they shall be in addition to those appointed by the States, but they shall be considered, for the purposes of the election of President and Vice President, to be electors appointed by a State; and they shall meet in the District and perform such duties as provided by the twelfth article of amendment.
Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Until the ratification of this amendment in 1961, the residents of Washington, D.C. had no vote in presidential elections. Since D.C. is not a state, and the Constitution is explicit about electors being chosen in proportion to a state's congressional representation, the residents there had no electors, and therefore, no vote for president. Ironic, isn't it, that the people who live where our federal government is headquartered were not allowed to vote for president? Clearly, that wasn't fair, but it took over 180 years to fix that particular problem (actually, less than that since Washington, D.C. wasn't even created for some time after the Constitution went into effect, but still...).
Interestingly, from a partisan point of view, in every single presidential election since the amendment was ratified, D.C. voters have voted for the Democrat candidate.
This amendment was ratified by 40 states and was enacted in 1961, making 1964 the first presidential election year in which D.C. residents could participate. Once state (Arkansas) rejected the amendment and nine have never taken action on it.
- Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.
- Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
This amendment formally abolished the poll tax, which was used in several, mostly southern, states as an impediment to blacks voting. At the time of ratification in 1964, only five states still had such a tax, but that all ended immediately.
The poll tax was a tactic used by Democrat-led legislatures after Reconstruction in order to keep blacks and even poor whites from voting. The tax was actually upheld originally in the Supreme Court decision Breedlove v Suttles in 1937. The Supreme Court only overturned the Breedlove decision in 1966, after the passage of the 24th Amendment, citing the tax as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (which we discussed here in my last entry).
38 states voted in favor of the amendment to get it ratified, while four more gave it their approval later. Mississippi rejected it and eight states have never taken action on it.
Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.
Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Driven by the youth movement and student activism in the 1960s, the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. The push to lower the voting age had begun decades earlier and had been endorsed by President Eisenhower in the 1950s. President Nixon signed an extension of the Voting Rights Act to lower the voting age to 18 in all elections, but the Constitution had yet to be amended. Eventually, the Senate passed the amendment unanimously and the House voted 401-19 in favor. Ratification by the states was completed in 1971 when 38 states voted in favor. Five more states ratified later (South Dakota waited until 2014 to ratify!) and seven states have taken no action.
Well, friends, that was a lot to digest. I look forward to your comments and discussion.
Next up: The Office-Holding Amendments