Voting Rights Activities

The Declaration of Independence declared that “All men are created equal”, most people in the United States did not have full rights of citizenship until almost two hundred years later. The United States has a long history of denying the right to vote to the poor, women, and people of color purposefully, through intimidation, violence, or creating laws as barriers.

Student Activities for Voting Rights

Essential Questions for Voting Rights in the United States

  1. Does everyone have the right to vote?
  2. Why is voting an important responsibility for citizens?
  3. How do voting and elections affect Americans’ everyday lives?
  4. How has our country’s history of limiting voting rights changed over time?
  5. How might our country be different if the power to vote was still limited to those who had it at the time of the writing of the Constitution?

A History of Voting Rights in the United States

It is vital for students to learn the history of voting rights and to think critically about the government’s and society’s role in suppressing the vote. It is up to these future leaders to continue this fight so that all Americans have the right to vote and are able to have their voices be heard.

When the great American experiment in democracy began in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence, only a small minority of Americans actually had the right to vote: white, male, landowners over the age of 21. This purposefully excluded the poor, women and people of color. However, as time went on, society’s views gradually changed and slowly forced the creation of new laws to expand the right to vote. When the Constitution was adopted in 1787, there was no agreement made on a national standard for voting rights. This meant the right to vote was left to the states. In most cases, the right to vote was still only for white, male landowners.

In 1788, the Electoral College was established. Americans do not directly vote for the president of the United States. Instead, their votes determine how electors vote and the electors from each state vote for and elect the president. The Framers argued that this helped to balance the interests of states with lower populations vs. states with higher populations. This compromise aided Southern states who had fewer eligible voters than the Northern states.

When the 1790 Naturalization Law (or the Nationality Act) was passed, only “free white” immigrants could become naturalized citizens. This barred African Americans from the right to vote even if they were free. It also barred Chinese, Mexican, or other people of color from gaining citizenship. African Americans were not allowed citizenship until the 14th Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1866. Ratified in 1868, it granted citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States, including former slaves. Native Americans did not receive full citizenship until 1924 with the Snyder Act. The Snyder Act enforced U.S. citizenship for Native American who retained their own governments and tribal sovereignty. However, because the U.S. Constitution leaves the details of voting up to the states, many Native Americans were still prevented from voting.

In 1848, the first Women’s Rights Convention was held in Seneca Falls, NY and was attended by three hundred women including prominent suffragettes Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. At the convention, they argued for women to gain the right to vote among other demands. However, it wouldn’t be until 1920 and the passing of the 19th Amendment that women would be granted the right to vote.

The 15th Amendment was passed by Congress in 1869, which outlawed discrimination in voting against male citizens based on race, color or previous condition of servitude (people who were formerly enslaved). It was intended to grant Black men the right to vote and was adopted into the U.S. Constitution in 1870. However, in the south, a series of local and state laws soon followed such as poll taxes and literacy tests, as well as violence and intimidation committed by white supremacy terrorists like the Ku Klux Klan. These were deliberate attempts to prevent Black citizens from voting. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. It enforced the 15th Amendment by explicitly stating that obstacles such as literacy tests, complicated ballot instructions or poll taxes were against federal law. It sought to reverse the effects of the many local and state laws created after the 15th Amendment that disenfranchised Black voters.

In 1975, the Voting Rights Act was expanded to include protections for people whose first language is not English (languages such as Spanish, French, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, etc.). This helped ensure that citizens whose first language was not English would have equal access to voting. In 1982, Congress passed another extension to the Voting Rights Act that extended the law for another 25 years and included requirements for states to take action to make voting more accessible for the elderly and people with disabilities.

Despite all of these positive changes, there’s still work that needs to be done to ensure that all Americans have equal access to the vote. Counties have redrawn their district lines (this is called gerrymandering), which can alter populations and elections. Voter registration purges are also increasingly common, which can make thousands or millions of voters now unable to cast a vote. Strict voter ID laws have also emerged in recent years. In 2018, North Dakota added a new requirement that IDs have a residential address listed in order to vote. This law may prevent hundreds of Native residents from voting because most tribal IDs do not have residential addresses listed, but a PO box instead.

Key Terms for Voting Rights

FoundersThe most prominent statesmen during the American Revolution, the drafting of the Declaration and of the Constitution. Examples of a few Founding Fathers: Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton.
FramersThe 55 individuals who were appointed to be delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention and took part in drafting the proposed Constitution of the United States.
ConstitutionA set of rules and laws that tells how a government is organized and run. The Constitution of the United States was ratified on June 21, 1788.
Constitutional GovernmentA government in which the powers of the ruler or rulers are limited by a constitution. The rulers must obey the constitution.
Supremacy ClauseThe clause in the U.S. Constitution that explains that states cannot make laws that conflict with the U.S. Constitution or with the laws made by Congress.
AmendmentA change in or addition to a document.
(Ratified, Ratification)
Ratification is the official way to confirm something, usually by vote. It is the formal validation of a proposed law. In the United States, any amendment to the Constitution requires ratification by at least three quarters of the states, even after Congress has approved it.
Poll TaxA tax that voters in many states had to pay before they could vote.
Literacy TestTests given to people to prove they are able to read and write. These tests were used in the South to keep African Americans from voting.
Grandfather ClauseThe law that stated that a person could vote if his grandfather had been allowed to vote. It made it possible for white people who could not pass a literacy test to vote because their grandfathers had the right to vote. It also made it impossible for African Americans to vote because their grandfathers had not been allowed to vote.
Voter SuppressionA strategy used to influence the outcome of an election by discouraging or preventing specific groups of people from voting.
Polling BoothA small, enclosed area for privacy in which a person stands or sits while casting a vote.
BallotA process of voting, in writing, typically in secret. “Getting on the ballot” refers to a candidate winning their party’s nomination and therefore being listed on the ballot as an option.
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