It wasn’t unusual for the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, to be noisy with cars and trucks. But on March 9, 1965, traffic wasn’t the source of the commotion on the structure—the noise came from the chants of peaceful protesters streaming across the bridge. Marching behind civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr., thousands of U.S. citizens carried signs bearing the words “We Demand Voting Rights Now!” and “Protect My Vote.”
While some U.S. citizens gained the right to vote in the United States as early as 1789, others—including many Black people—didn’t earn the right until much later. In fact, throughout U.S. history, many citizens have been denied the right to vote, including women, enslaved people, African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, immigrants, the impoverished, people convicted of a felony, and adults unable to read and write.
It took almost two centuries for a nation whose founders wrote equality for “all men” into the Declaration of Independence to achieve something close to universal suffrage, or the right to vote for everyone. What took so long?
Voting then and now
In 1789, 13 years after the United States declared itself an independent country, the U.S. Constitution allowed each state to determine who could vote there. Most states granted the right to vote to white men who owned property. Since then, changes in voting rights have come gradually, and the people granted those rights weren’t always allowed to vote, even if a law protected that right. Yet little by little, most Americans have gained the right to vote in the country’s elections.
Today, if you’re 18 years old and a U.S. citizen, you’re most likely able to vote. (Among those who can’t are non-citizens—including permanent legal residents—some people with felony convictions, and some people who are mentally disabled.)
Although the federal government has the last word on voting rights, states oversee how votes are cast and counted. Those state laws vary over who can vote, how people register to vote, and the ways people vote. And sometimes those laws try to restrict people from voting.
Sometimes to help a political party’s chance of winning, officials will try to prevent other people from casting ballots. This is called voter suppression, a method that has long been used in U.S. elections.
For instance, authorities have forced people to pay to vote (known as poll taxes), changed the boundaries of voting districts so that one political party would dominate (a process called gerrymandering), required voters to live in one place a long time, and created difficult tests people had to pass to vote. At times state officials have refused to comply with federal voting laws, and sometimes voters were harassed and even murdered for attempting to register for voting.
To help make sure everyone is allowed to vote and that authorities enforce voting laws, Congress has passed a series of amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Here are a few:
Progress for minorities
The 15th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1870 and granted African-American males the right to vote. At first thousands of former enslaved people were able to cast ballots, but many white people turned to violence to prevent Blacks from voting. White people also tried to pass laws that made it more difficult for Black citizens to vote. In 1965 a series of peaceful protests in Alabama turned violent after police and white counter-protesters got involved. People all over the world witnessed the events on TV and in newspapers, which drew attention to the issue of voting rights. This eventually led to the federal government passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and forced local authorities to uphold the 15th Amendment.
The 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920 and granted women the right to vote. Starting in 1848, women began a 72-year-long struggle to gain their voting rights. And even though the amendment was supposed to include all women, many African-American women were still prevented from voting because of racist laws and behavior. They would wait another 45 years to have their voting rights enforced through the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
In 1971, Americans expanded voting rights again when the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. At the height of the Vietnam War in 1971—a war between what was then the two separate countries of North and South Vietnam—young people didn’t think it was fair that they could be forced into military service but still not be old enough to vote. Their protests led Congress and the states to reduce the voting age to match the age for military service.
Wars influenced the passage of the previous suffrage amendments as well. The Union victory in the Civil War directly contributed to former enslaved men getting the right to vote, and the desire to support democracy in other countries during World War I led to women’s voting rights in the United States.
Voting in a pandemic
Voting became a challenge for all U.S. citizens during the 2020 election. COVID-19 was extremely contagious, and people needed to stay apart so they wouldn’t catch this deadly disease. Many state election officials tried to make the process easier by allowing higher numbers of mail-in voting than ever before. Social distancing and mask wearing were encouraged at the polls. The efforts apparently worked: More Americans voted in the 2020 election—two-thirds of the voting-eligible population—than in any other in 120 years.
The fight for voting rights continues.
Debates continue over who should be able to vote and how. Should voters have to show photo IDs to prove their identities? Should there be a paper record of every vote cast? Should convicted felons who have served their sentences be banned from voting? Should immigrants be allowed to vote, even if they are not yet citizens? Should the voting age be lowered to 16?
How will such debates be settled? Perhaps they’ll be put to a vote!
From the Nat Geo Kids book Our Country's Presidents by Ann Bausum; revised for digital by Kay Boatner.