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The tumultuous history of the right to vote in the U.S.

Par Marion Douzou : Maîtresse de Conférences - Université Lyon 2
Publié par Marion Coste le 23/09/2021
This presentation aims at giving an overview of the history of the right to vote in the United States, from the Founding Fathers to voter suppression in the twenty-first century.

Cette ressource est issue d'une présentation donnée dans le cadre de la journée de formation "Libertés publiques et libertés individuelles (LLCER anglais, monde contemporain)" inscrite au Plan Académique de Formation de Lyon (22 janvier 2021).


It took four days in November 2020 for the U.S. to find out who the next American president would be. As the world watched with baited breath, tensions rose as American poll workers counted all the ballots that had been cast. Why did it take so long?

The first reason is that there was unprecedented participation in this election: two thirds of the voting eligible population (66,2%). The second reason is that a lot of voters decided to vote by mail because of the pandemic. In the U.S., each state is in charge of organizing their elections, so the rules differ from state to state. Before 2020, only five states – Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington – organized elections almost entirely by mail. With the pandemic, dozens of states modified their rule for mail-in voting. In New York and New Hampshire for instance, before 2020, voters needed an excuse to be allowed to vote by mail. For the 2020 election however, all voters were eligible to vote by mail.

This increase in mail-in voting led to many debates between Republicans and Democrats. Democrats tended to be in favor of mail-in voting as their voters were more worried about the Covid pandemic and, according to many polls, would be more comfortable voting by mail. On the other hand, Republican voters were more skeptical about the pandemic and preferred voting in person. Attacking mail-in voting was therefore a way for Republicans to decrease the number of Democratic votes that could be cast. Very early on, Donald Trump started campaigning on fraudulent mail-in votes and attempted to defund the post office so that it would be harder for mail-in votes to be counted. In Republican states, Republican legislatures tried to sue or change the law on mail-in voting. For instance, in Pennsylvania, they tried to prevent the counting of all ballots that were postmarked on the day of the election but arrived to the polling place after election day.

Donald Trump’s rhetoric of voter fraud and the numerous lawsuits filed by Republicans in several states aim at making access to voting harder. This attack on the right to vote is not new. It comes from a very long tradition dating back to the nineteenth century as will be shown in the following overview of key moments of expansion and restriction of access to the right to vote, from the Founding Fathers in the eighteenth century to the fight for the right to vote for women and African Americans in the nineteenth century, from the 15th amendment which granted the right to vote to all male U.S. citizens to the claim for woman suffrage, from the struggle of the civil rights movement against the disenfranchisement of African Americans in the 1960s to voter suppression in the early twenty-first century.

1. The Founding Fathers and the right to vote

In 1776, only white men aged twenty-one and older who owned land were allowed to vote. The right to vote was linked to the amount of money you had. The Founding Fathers feared that giving the right to vote to all citizens would lead to the rule of the masses. They therefore did not include it in the Constitution and left it up to the states to decide who could vote in each state. James Madison believed for instance that ordinary people could not be trusted. During the debate about Virginia’s Constitution in 1829, he opposed the expansion of the right to vote to citizens who did not own land because “the great danger is that the majority may not sufficiently respect the rights of the Minority” ((Morgan Marietta, « The right to vote is not in the Constitution », The Conversation, August 26th 2020: https://theconversation.com/the-right-to-vote-is-not-in-the-constitution-144531))

According to the Founders, individual rights would be better protected by an educated elite than by the masses.

As new states joined the Union, the idea of expanding the suffrage gained ground. Some states already had different rules from what the Founding Fathers had in mind. For instance, in Vermont, Kentucky, and Tennessee, one did not have to own property to vote and several state constitutions protected the right to vote. In the 1830s, President Andrew Jackson championed the idea of universal white male suffrage. This can be explained by the fact that Jackson was born poor and did not belong to the elite, and therefore saw no reason to favor them over poor white Americans. By 1860, most white men had the right to vote even if they did not own property. However, women, African Americans and Native Americans were still excluded from the franchise.

2. The fight for the right to vote for women and African Americans

The early nineteenth century was a key moment that saw the politicization of women thanks to two social movements: the temperance movement and the abolitionist movement.

  • The temperance movement was based on religious beliefs. For evangelicals, alcohol was seen as a sin; they saw alcohol consumption as the main reason for the destruction of families. Initially, the movement advocated for the limitation of alcohol but gradually turned to its complete prohibition. In the mid-1830s, there were around 5 000 state and local temperance associations, and women organized protests outside stores and saloons. There was also a desire to get rid of gambling, prostitution and all the sins that came with alcohol consumption. The poster below is a political ad that shows that the temperance movement was also fighting corruption and people who made money from the liquor business. In 1873, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union was founded and in 1919, the 18th amendment instituting prohibition was passed. This movement encouraged many middle-class evangelical white women to become politically active.

  • The second movement that was key to suffrage for women was the abolitionist movement. Under the influence of African American associations asking for the immediate abolition of slavery, the development of an abolitionist press in the North, but also the expansion of slavery in the South, some reformers started to campaign for the immediate emancipation of slaves in the 1830s. Women took part in this movement, which also led them to leave the domestic sphere to which they had been relegated up until then. First, they joined women-only societies and then mixed organizations. At the time, slavery became a metaphor to describe women’s situation. The Grimké sisters, who were the daughters of a North Carolina slave owner, were among the first to promote women’s right to speak against slavery in public.

These movements led to the organization of the Seneca Falls Convention in New York in July 1848. This convention marked both the outcome of women’s experiences in the temperance and abolitionist movements and the beginning of a women’s right movement in the U.S. It was the first convention to mention woman suffrage. Three hundred men and women met, asking for political, social, and economic equality for women. A hundred men and women signed the Declaration of Sentiments modeled after the Declaration of Independence. They kept the structure and the preamble of this iconic document but changed significant passages such as “All men are created equal”, which became “All men and women are created equal”. It denounced male tyranny over women, presented as deprived of basic rights, among which the right to vote. The goal of the Declaration of Sentiments was to show the limits of American democracy, which excluded more than half of the population. It was Frederick Douglass, the only African American present, who helped pass the resolution on woman suffrage. This shows the links that existed between the abolitionist movement and the women’s rights movement, an alliance that came to an end with the passage of the 15th amendment.

3. The 15th amendment

The 15th amendment was part of the three Reconstruction amendments. After the end of the civil war, a period of Reconstruction followed during which a series of rights were granted to African Americans. In January 1865, the 13th amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery throughout the U.S. Approximately 4 million slaves became free: the freedmen and the freedwomen no longer had to stay on their plantation and with their former masters.

However, not all politicians agreed with what emancipation meant. For many (Republicans as well as for Northern Democrats), the main purpose of the war had been to force the states that had seceded to return to the Union. They wanted to put the war behind them and were ready to allow the former Southern elite to return to power in their states. One of the most vocal advocates of reconciliation between the North and the South was President Andrew Johnson who had succeeded Lincoln after he was assassinated in April 1865.

The creation of the Ku Klux Klan in Tennessee in 1866 also shows the resistance the period of Reconstruction met and the violence that ensued. The KKK was created by former Confederate soldiers; it was designed to keep Blacks in their place, ensure white supremacy continued, and prevent Blacks from having access to polling places. In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, the people elected to the state legislatures were part of the old planter elite who had been in power before the war. These elected officials quickly passed laws which aimed at intimidating the freedmen and keeping them employed on plantations so that planters would still be able to hire cheap workers. For instance, most Black codes forced freedmen to have an employment contract to show at all times; otherwise, they could be arrested for “vagrancy”. This greatly restricted the freedom the freedmen had just gained.

However, another group of politicians had a different vision of what Reconstruction should look like and in the 1866 Congressional election, Northern Republicans won a series of victories in Congress. The “Radical Republicans” such as Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens had fought closely with the abolitionists before the war. They passed a series of measures in Congress to break the power of the old planter elite. For instance, the Reconstruction Act of 1867 created five military districts in the South and placed the U.S. army in charge of supervising elections in the South. This aimed at preventing the campaign of intimidation and violence against African Americans that had started immediately after the war. The intervention of the federal government ensured the freedmen and freedwomen protection from the old planter elite. The period of Reconstruction was characterized by unprecedented intervention from the federal government. Radical Republicans’ work continued with two more amendments:

  • In June 1866, the second Reconstruction amendment, the 14th amendment, was passed by the U.S. Congress. It ensured that neither the U.S. government nor state governments could deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law. It also barred the former “rebels” (the white elite who had been in power until then) from political office in the U.S. and state governments.
  • Finally, the 15th amendment guaranteed the right to vote to all U.S. citizens. This of course meant that white and black men were allowed to vote but white and black women were still not granted the right to vote.

Because of the presence of the U.S. army in the South, African Americans were able to vote in local, state and national elections, and even to win seats in state legislatures. In South Carolina, African American men represented almost 60% of the population in 1870 and the state legislature was made up of a majority of black representatives. Joseph Hayne Rainey, who was born a slave in 1832, was elected to the South Carolina Senate and later on went on to serve in the U.S. Congress. This first generation of African-American politicians joined the ranks of the Republican party, which had up until then not had a great influence in the South.

This new generation of African American politicians in Congress was not to the liking of many in the South, particularly the old planter elite. In 1915, the film Birth of a Nation came out. It depicted African Americans – often played by white actors in blackface – as stupid, sexually dangerous for white women, and unable to hold elected office. In a scene at the South Carolina legislature, the newly elected African American members are presented as incapable of governing – one of them is drinking alcohol, another one takes his shoes off. On the other hand, the KKK is portrayed as the organization capable of restoring American values.

This film shows the deep division that existed in the South but also more broadly in American society at the time. As time went on, this generation of black elected officials and radical Republicans found it increasingly difficult to convince Northern Republicans to support the Reconstruction governments of the South. Northern politicians turned their attention to economic and financial policies and some even saw Reconstruction policies as a dangerous abuse of federal government power. In 1872, Congress enacted an amnesty law that restored the voting rights of most former confederate soldiers and the last federal troops withdrew from the South in 1877. The Republican governments established in the South did not last, and gave way to Democratic governments dominated by people who called themselves the “Redeemers” – people who promised to “save” the South from the corruption of Republican rule.

This period of Redemption saw the implementation by Democratic state governments of a new system of laws called the “Jim Crow” laws, which forced African Americans to live under a system of racial segregation. Jim Crow was a derogatory name for African-Americans and was originally the name of a character who had been invented to caricature and mock African Americans. In the 1880s and early 1890s, public officials and business companies had to provide separate public facilities for Blacks and Whites. Segregation shows that the doctrine of white supremacy was the cement of the Southern Democratic party.

However, African-Americans managed to remain active in Southern politics until the Democratic legislatures passed a second set of laws in the late 1890s and early 1900s. The new set of voter registration laws passed by Southern Democrats were designed to restore order and prevent corruption at the polls. The registration of voters was conditioned upon literacy tests, poll taxes (you had to pay a tax to be able to vote) or residence requirements.

Poll taxes were efficient in preventing African Americans from voting because many former slaves did not accumulate any wealth and therefore were unable to pay. However, to ensure that poor whites still had access to the polls, some laws stated that you had to pay a tax to vote unless your grandfather had the right to vote – which could not be true of former slaves. These provisions were called “grandfather clauses”.

Literacy tests were also an efficient way to disqualify African Americans, as during slavery in most states, it was illegal to teach slaves to read and write. Therefore, many of them were illiterate.

Even if somebody had enough money to pay the tax and if they were able to read and write, the local officials who registered voters could easily decide that Blacks did not meet these requirements, or did not offer adequate proof that they did. The beginning of the film Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay in 2014, is a good example of that:

Application - Selma Movie Clip. Source: Youtube.

The scene in the film shows that the difficulty of literacy tests could vary greatly and often make it impossible for African Americans to register to vote. These new registration laws effectively organized the disenfranchisement of Blacks: in Louisiana for example, before 1896, 93% of Blacks were registered to vote. That number fell to only 3% by 1898. In Mississippi in 1908, only 7.5% of the Blacks were registered to vote, while 63% of the Whites were.

Even though African American men got the right to vote in 1870 with the 15th amendment, they were quickly prevented from voting and registering to vote, not explicitly because of the color of their skin because the 15th amendment forbade it, but through literacy tests, poll taxes or other requirements which were left to the discretion of the white people in charge of giving these tests.

4. The split between the abolitionist movement and the women’s rights movement

After the end of the Civil War, women who had been fighting side by side with African Americans in the abolitionist movement believed it was time for the franchise to be extended to men and women – black and white. However, some Republicans feared that women’s suffrage would be too controversial and could endanger African American men’s suffrage.  For instance, at the annual meeting of the Equal Rights Association in May 1869, Frederick Douglass, who had been a very active women’s rights advocate until then, argued for the urgency of freedmen’s enfranchisement over women’s:

“When women, because they are women, are dragged from their houses and hung upon lamp-posts; when their children are torn from their arms, and their brains dashed upon the pavement; when they are objects of insult and outrage at every turn; when they are in danger of having their homes burnt down over their heads; when their children are not allowed to enter schools; then they will have an urgency to obtain the ballot equal to our own.” When a person in the audience shouted “Is that not all true about black women?” Douglass replied: “Yes, yes, yes; it is true of the black woman, but not because she is a woman, but because she is black.” ((S. Jay, Walker. 1983. « Frederick Douglass and Woman Suffrage ». The Black Scholar, volume 14, n°5, pp. 18-25.))

This dialogue shows that, by separating the two causes of women’s and African Americans’ rights, the debate over the 15th Amendment was instrumental in the passage from the claim for universal suffrage to woman suffrage. It was also strongly influenced by racist rhetoric, as the opponents of the 15th Amendment within the woman suffrage movement started developing a discourse on the superiority of white women over black men.

Susan B. Anthony said of the 15th Amendment, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work for or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman” ((Anne Laurent, « Race Against History », The Washington Post, January 31st 1983. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/entertainment/books/1982/01/31/race-against-history/d4182407-ee52-4d8b-bdf5-f86deaf0e18d/)). Carrie Chapman Catt (president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association) also said:

the present condition in the South makes sovereigns of some negro men, when all white women are their subjects. These are sad but solemn truths. If you want white supremacy, why not have it constitutionally, honorably? The federal Amendment offers the way. We entreat you to think it over and vote “yes” on the Federal Suffrage Amendment. ((« 19th Amendment: 'A Start, Not A Finish' For Suffrage », NPR, August 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XcrGQ0npuCw))

Even though they were disappointed by male reformers’ stand, some women activists, such as Lucy Stone, supported the 15th Amendment, which enfranchised black men, while others, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, demanded that women be enfranchised at all costs. This led to the creation of two woman suffrage associations in 1869:

  • the American Woman Suffrage Association (founded by Lucy Stone and her husband Henry Blackwell)
  • the National Woman Suffrage Association (founded by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony).

They both had the same goal – the enfranchisement of women – but, after the 15th Amendment granted African American men the right to vote, they adopted different strategies: the American Association favored a state-by-state approach, while the National Association promoted the adoption of a federal amendment.

The two associations merged in 1890. By then, women’s political situation had somewhat evolved: for instance in 1870, Wyoming and Utah passed the first enfranchisement bills; in 1872, Victoria Woodhull became the first woman candidate to a presidential election. World War I had also accelerated the movement toward woman suffrage. It was in 1920 that women obtained the right to vote at the federal level with the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. This victory should again be seen as a start and not a finish because in 1920, African American women were still not allowed to vote because they were submitted to the same tests African American men had been for years and they were threatened with the same violence if they dared try and register.

A video from NPR entitled “19th Amendment: 'A Start, Not A Finish' For Suffrage” (August 2020) sums up the issue.

19th Amendment: 'A Start, Not A Finish' For Suffrage (NPR). Source: Youtube.

The video quotes a letter written in October 1920 by the national activist for civil rights Mary Church Terrell ((For more on Mary Church Terrell, see Terrell, Mary Church. A Colored Woman in a White World. Washington, DC: Ransdell Inc. Printers and Publishers, 1940 and Parker, Alison M. Unceasing Militant: The Life of Mary Church Terrell. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2020.)), which describes the predicament in which African American women found themselves:

the coloured women of the south will be shamefully treated, and will not be allowed to vote, I am sure. I hope the Republicans will do something toward enforcing the 15th amendment. We are so helpless without the right of citizenship in that section of the country where we need it most.

5. From 1920 to 1965 : voting rights for African Americans

Between 1920 and 1965, African Americans were disenfranchised in most of the country using the same techniques that had been implemented during Redemption. These tactics were made even more efficient because of state-sanctioned violence which was used against anyone who opposed segregation and the racial order it put in place.

The civil rights movement was instrumental in getting civil rights legislation passed. The movement took different forms but through direct action and the work done by student-run organizations such as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating committee (SNCC) and The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Both participated in the Freedom Summer in Mississippi in 1964, a registration drive to register African American voters in a state with a dense history of discrimination and where the first Black codes were passed after the Civil War. The people who led Freedom Summer faced intimidation and violent resistance from the white population, but they set up schools for African American children and attempted to convince people to register to vote.

One of the most well-known of these civil rights activists was Fannie Lou Hamer ((For more on Fannie Lou Hamer, see Blain, Keisha N. Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer's Enduring Message to America. Boston: Beacon Press, 2021.)). She was the last child of a family of twenty children and her parents were sharecroppers in Mississippi. Sharecropping meant that the landowner allowed a tenant to use the land in exchange for a part of their crop. This ensured that tenants would try to produce the biggest harvest possible and that they would not leave the plantation. This way, former planters would not find themselves without a workforce. Fannie Lou Hamer started picking cotton when she was six and only learned in 1962 that she was allowed to register to vote. She attended meetings led by activists from SNCC and The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). She became a SNCC organizer and in August 1962, she and seventeen volunteers tried to register to vote. She was denied after an unfair literacy test (much like the one in the movie Selma), harassed by police officers on her way home, and fired from the job she had held most of her life. She later on successfully registered to vote.

In June 1963, she was arrested with other Black women for sitting in a “whites-only” restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina. She was beaten so brutally that she was left with lifelong injuries. The following year, she became a national figure of the civil rights movement when she co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to challenge the all-white delegation which was supposed to represent the Democratic Party in Mississippi at the DNC. As she was giving her speech, President Lyndon Johnson organized a last-minute press conference so that her speech would not be broadcasted on national TV. Even though this attempt failed, as her speech was aired later on, it shows how scared President Lyndon Johnson was of the power of this African American woman. In 1964, she organized Freedom Summer and brought hundreds of college students to register African Americans in the South. That same year, she ran for the Mississippi House of Representatives. This woman’s story, although well-known nowadays, is not taught in most American classrooms. She belongs to the list of civil rights leaders who fought bitterly for African Americans to finally be granted a right they should have had since the 15th amendment.

Marches were also organized. The most famous is probably the one that went from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. In March 1965, activists of the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King Jr., led a peaceful march to demand voting rights for African Americans. They were faced with violent repression from white police officers who tear-gassed and beat them.

These events, organized by people who often are not given much credit in history books or in American collective memory, as well as the constant pressure that the civil rights movement put on politicians to act, led to a constitutional amendment banning poll taxes in 1964 and to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which abolished discrimination in federal, state, and local elections.

Lyndon Johnson, who signed the Voting Rights Act on August 6th, 1965, presented the right to vote as “the basic right without which all others are meaningless. It gives people, people as individuals, control over their own destinies” ((Lyndon B. Jonhson, « Voting Rights Act Signing Remarks », LBJ Presidential Library, August 6th 1965. https://www.lbjlibrary.org/object/text/remarks-capitol-rotunda-signing-voting-rights-act-08-06-1965)). By abolishing discrimination in federal, state, and local elections, the Voting Rights Act fulfilled the promises made by the 15th and the 19th amendments. By eliminating the barriers that had blocked African Americans’ access to the voting booth, voter registration among African Americans greatly improved. For example, black voter registration rates in Mississippi went from 6.7% in 1965 to 59.8% in 1967, according to the US Commission on Civil Rights ((German Lopez, « How the Voting Rights Act transformed black voting rights in the South, in one chart », Vox, August 6th 2015. https://www.vox.com/2015/3/6/8163229/voting-rights-act-1965)) and rates improved all over the south.

Minority Representation and the Quest for Voting Equality, US Commission for Civil Rights. Source: Vox

The Voting Rights Act did much more than that. It placed states which had a history of discrimination – by implementing a discriminatory test, or where the voting registration rate or turnout was lower than 50% – under federal supervision. If a state like Mississippi wanted to change its voting rules, it needed to ask the federal government for permission so that the federal government could make sure that it was not trying to disenfranchise a part of its population. Just as in the Reconstruction period, the federal government stepped in to ensure that the rights of African Americans were respected. Because of the unprecedented federal intervention it represented, conservatives – who are in favor of limited government – immediately went after the law in courts. The Voting Rights Act was a five-year temporary legislation which was repeatedly extended by Congress afterwards but was the subject of many judicial attacks by conservatives ((For more information on the law and the debates around it, see Richomme, Olivier. 2015. « The Voting Rights Act at 50: From Vote Participation to Meaningful Representation ». Transatlantica, volume 1. https://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/7465))The latest of these attacks took place in 2013.

6. Voter suppression in the early twenty-first century

In 2013, in a decision called Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court found that the formula that the government was using to determine if a state needed federal oversight to change its election law was outdated and unconstitutional. This meant that states who had been subjected to preclearing their new election laws were now free to pass any law they saw fit.

Immediately after the Shelby decision, states (mostly Republican) who had been subjected to preclearance passed measures that disenfranchised an important number of voters and made it more difficult to vote for millions of people.

First of all, voting in the U.S always takes place on a Tuesday so people would have to take time off from work to go to the polls where lines are often very long. In order to increase participation in the election, many states allowed early voting (meaning you could cast your ballot before election day), opened more polling places (so that it did not take as long for people to vote), and allowed same day registration (meaning you could register to vote and vote on the same day). All these measures aimed at making voting easier. In the twenty-first century, Republicans have been attacking these measures and in a number of states like Georgia have reduced the number of early-voting days for an election or have closed polling places in districts with a high number of minority voters. The 15th amendment forbids anyone from barring access to the polls because of their race. However, poll closure can have a similar effect while being legal. In 2020, in some polling locations in Georgia, people stood in line for eleven hours to vote.

Another common example is that of voter purge. On a regular basis, a state needs to purge voters who have moved, died, etc. from its list. However this process is sometimes used in ways that are problematic. For instance, in Georgia in 2017, more than half a million people – 8% of Georgia’s registered voters – were purged from the voter rolls. 107, 000 of them were purged because they had not voted in prior federal elections ((Angela Caputo, Geoff Hing and Johnny Kauffman « They Didn't Vote ... Now They Can't », APM Reports. https://www.apmreports.org/story/2018/10/19/georgia-voter-purge))This rule was known as “use it or lose it”: if you don’t use your right to vote, you will eventually lose it by being purged from the voting roles.

Another common tactic is voter ID laws. Starting in 2010, many states introduced voter ID laws. When you vote in the U.S., in most states, officials compare your signature when voting with your signature on record but historically you did not need an ID. Republicans arguing that voter fraud was an important problem in the U.S. asserted that showing ID would be a good way to ensure that dead people would not vote and that there would be no voter impersonation. However, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), these laws disproportionately affect low-income, racial and ethnic minorities, the elderly, and people with disabilities who have difficulty obtaining ID because they often can’t afford it. These voters also tend to vote for the Democratic Party. In some cases, the type of voter ID required to vote also seems to favor Republicans. For instance, in Texas, you could use your concealed weapons permit for voting, but student ID cards were not accepted and young people are among the voting groups that tend to lean more democratic. These voter ID laws are seen by Republicans as the only way to solve the problem of voter fraud in the U.S. while voting right advocates argue that they are a way to reduce the number of people who actually vote.

Finally, the last tactic is the disenfranchisement of felons. The 13th amendment says that slavery should be abolished except as a punishment for a crime. According to historian Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow (2012), this was a loophole that was immediately used to keep African Americans as slaves and to take their newly acquired rights from them. The criminalization of blackness continued throughout the Jim Crow era and led in the 1980s and 1990s to the mass incarceration of African Americans on an unprecedented scale, as shown in the documentary 13th directed by Ava DuVernay in 2016.

13th trailer (2016). Source: Youtube.

Many states have refused to give people who have completed their prison sentence their voting rights back. This is not a new tactic by any means. In 1868 the Florida Constitution stated that those with a felony conviction could not vote. Felony disenfranchisement quickly spread all over the country. In recent years, many states have changed their policies and now restore voting rights to felons. However, despite this encouraging trend, a report by the Sentencing Project found that “as of 2020, an estimated 5.17 million people are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction, a figure that has declined by almost 15 percent since 2016, as states enacted new policies to curtail this practice. There were an estimated 1.17 million people disenfranchised in 1976, 3.34 million in 1996, 5.85 million in 2010, and 6.11 million in 2016” ((Chris Uggen, Ryan Larson, Sarah Shannon and Arleth Pulido-Nava, « Locked Out 2020: Estimates of People Denied Voting Rights Due to a Felony Conviction », The Sentencing Project, August 30th 2020.  https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/locked-out-2020-estimates-of-people-denied-voting-rights-due-to-a-felony-conviction/))


The myth of voter fraud has been engrained in Republican rhetoric for years. More recently, it has allowed lawmakers in Republican states to pass election laws that disenfranchise millions of Americans, especially minorities and groups of people who overwhelmingly vote for the Democrats. In 2017, Donald Trump asked Chris Kobach, the governor of Kansas, to set up a commission to work on the problem of voter fraud in the U.S.: eight months later, the commission was disbanded for lack of evidence of fraud. However, this has not prevented Donald Trump from claiming that the 2020 election was stolen from him through major fraud. The reason this type of rhetoric works with his base is because the Republican party and the conservative movement have been using these arguments for years and repeatedly tried to suppress the vote of certain sections of the population who might be less inclined to vote for them. This type of rhetoric is dangerous because it undermines confidence in democracy.

However, other voices, such as congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have attempted to draw attention to the problem of long lines at the polls and have talked about the need to reform the way elections work. Black voter turnout has also been the focus of former Georgia gubernatorial candidate and voting rights activist Stacey Abrams’s campaign to turn Georgia blue over the last four years. The New Georgia Project, which she co-founded, has registered 500,000 people to vote since 2014. As Vox’s Anna North has reported, many other organizations, such as the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, also worked toward increasing Black voter participation ((Dylan Scott, « ‘Phenomenal’ Black turnout won the Senate for Democrats in Georgia », Vox, January 6th 2021. https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2021/1/6/22216677/georgia-senate-election-results-black-voters-turnout-warnock-ossoff?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social&utm_content=voxdotcom&utm_campaign=vox.social&fbclid=IwAR2RrVS7luNnoSZU837SiG7fo2SEyLL4tQokuchoJMnQ7o_Jt2PzIdGMCks)). These are the most recent progressive efforts to ensure that participation by minorities is not curtailed, but this fight is far from over.

Documents for class use

On voter suppression and the 2020 presidential election:

Documentary « Whose Vote Counts, Explained », Netflix, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yn36tY7rNUM

Sheneman, Drew. 2012. NJ-ACLU Cartoon Contest Winner. Source: https://datadrivenviewpoints.com/2012/12/04/voter-suppression-humor-nj-aclu-cartoon-contest-winner/

« All the Ways Georgia Is Suppressing the Vote », The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, 2020.


« Election 2020 », Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AytDzZ2ecCc

Video « How does vote-by-mail work and does it increase election fraud?  », Brookings Institution, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Vz7d0C1cGE&feature=emb_logo

On women’s right to vote:

Video « 19th Amendment: 'A Start, Not A Finish' For Suffrage », NPR, 2020.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XcrGQ0npuCw

History of voting in Washington state:

Secretary of State Kim Wyman. « History of Votig in America ».  https://www.sos.wa.gov/_assets/elections/history-of-voting-in-america-timeline.pdf

On African Americans’ access to voting:

Michals, Debra. 2017. « Fanny Lou Hamer ». National Women’s History Museum. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/fannie-lou-hamer

Trailer for 13th, Ava Duvernay (2016): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K6IXQbXPO3I

Trailer for In the Heat of the Night, Norman Jewison (1967): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VIlxY-LUhkE

Video « The Tables are Turning. Vote in the GA Runoff Election », Fair Count, 2020.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XSIgo5Q85Ik&list=UUYI2B5hF-SxbzQmrSOuERAA&index=2

For more about the history of the right to vote in the U.S.:

Alexander Keyssar. 2009. The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. New York : Basic Books.


Pour citer cette ressource :

Marion Douzou, "The tumultuous history of the right to vote in the U.S.", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), septembre 2021. Consulté le 19/10/2021. URL: http://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/civilisation/domaine-americain/the-tumultuous-history-of-the-right-to-vote-in-the-u-s