The issue of voting rights in the United States has been contentious throughout United States history. Eligibility to vote in the United States is relevant at both the federal and state levels. In the absence of a specific federal law or constitutional provision, each state is given considerable discretion to establish qualifications for suffrage and candidacy within its own respective jurisdiction.
Originally, the U.S. Constitution did not define who was eligible to vote, allowing each state to determine who was eligible. In the early history of U.S., most states allowed only Caucasian males—who either owned property (i.e., at least 50 acres of land), or, had taxable incomes—to vote. Women could vote in New Jersey (provided they could meet the property requirement) and in some local jurisdictions, in other northern states. Non-white Americans could also vote in these jurisdictions, provided they could meet the property requirement. Freed slaves could vote in four states. Initially, unpropertied men and women—white citizens, slaves, and ex-slaves, alike—were largely prohibited from voting; however, by the time of the U.S. Civil War, most white men had been allowed to vote regardless of property ownership. Literacy tests, poll taxes, and even religious tests were some of the state and local laws used in various parts of the United States to intentionally deny immigrants (including legal ones and newly naturalized citizens), non-white citizens, Native Americans, and any other locally “undesirable” groups from exercising any voting rights that the federal government had granted them.
The United States Constitution, in Article VI, clause (paragraph) 3, states that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States”. The Constitution, however, leaves the determination of voters’ qualifications to the individual states to decide. Over time, the federal role in elections has increased, through amendments to the Constitution and enacted legislation (e.g., the Voting Rights Act of 1965). At least four of the fifteen post-Civil War constitutional amendments were ratified specifically to extend voting rights to different groups of citizens. These extensions state that voting rights cannot be denied or abridged based on the following:
Birth – “All persons born or naturalized” “are citizens” of the United States and the U.S. state where they reside (14th Amendment, 1868)
“Race, color, or previous condition of servitude” – (15th Amendment, 1870)
“On account of sex” – (19th Amendment, 1920)
In Washington, D.C., presidential elections (23rd Amendment, 1961)
(For federal elections) “By reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax” – (24th Amendment, 1964)
(For state elections) Taxes – (14th Amendment; Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, 383 U.S. 663 (1966))
“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” (26th Amendment, 1971).
Requirement that a person reside in a jurisdiction for an extended period of time (14th Amendment; Dunn v. Blumstein, 405 U.S. 330 (1972))
In addition, the 17th Amendment provided for the direct election of United States Senators.
The “right to vote” is not explicitly stated in the U.S. Constitution except in the above referenced amendments, and only in reference to the fact that the franchise cannot be denied or abridged based solely on the aforementioned qualifications. In other words, the “right to vote” is perhaps better understood, in layman’s terms, as only prohibiting certain forms of legal discrimination in establishing qualifications for suffrage. States may deny the “right to vote” for other reasons.
For example, many states require eligible citizens to register to vote a set number of days prior to the election in order to vote. More controversial restrictions include those laws that prohibit convicted felons from voting or, as seen in Bush v. Gore, disputes as to what rules should apply in counting or recounting ballots.
As described below, voting rights reforms have significantly expanded access to the ballot for women, non-whites, non-Protestants, those who lack wealth, and those 18–21 years old. However, the ranks of elected officials remain disproportionately white, wealthy, male, and older. For example, the 112th Congress (2010-2011) was 83% male, 8% black and 6% Hispanic (compared to 13% and 16% of the population as a whole), and the average age of Senators was 62 years and Representatives was 57 years (compared to a national median age of 37). And their median net worth was $913,000 which is roughly nine times greater than the median net worth of all U.S. households.
A state may choose to fill an office by means other than an election. For example, upon death or resignation of a legislator, the state may allow the affiliated political party to choose a replacement to hold office until the next scheduled election. Such an appointment is often affirmed by the governor.