Does the Constitution Protect the Right to Vote?
Many would argue that the right to vote is our most important right, an essential component of democracy, but if you look at the text of the U.S. Constitution, as originally ratified, you won’t find such a guarantee. It’s not in the Bill of Rights, either. In fact, the first time an explicit voting right protection was included in our government’s foundational document was when the 15th Amendment was ratified on February 3, 1870.
How Are Voting Rights Protected Under the Constitution?
Here’s an overview of the application of the U.S. Constitution to voting rights, from the ratification of the Constitution to the present:
- Prior to 1870, only white men could vote in the U.S.: Because the Constitution as originally adopted was silent on the right to vote, the right to determine who could vote fell to the states under the 10th Amendment. Most states limited franchise rights to white men who either owned property or paid a certain amount of taxes. (One notable exception: In 1797, New Jersey granted free Black men and women of both races the right to vote. The privilege was short-lived, though, as the New Jersey Assembly voted in 1807 to limit voting to white males.)
- 1870–Black men got the vote: The 15th Amendment guarantees that voting rights cannot be abridged or denied based on a person’s race.
- 1920–Women got the vote: Ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920 gave women the right to vote. Fifteen states and five territories had granted women the franchise before the 19th Amendment was added to the Constitution.
- 1964–Voting rights guaranteed to be free of poll taxes: In 1964, the 24th Amendment made it a violation of the Constitution to charge any type of poll tax in federal elections. After the Civil War, poll taxes had been introduced in most Southern states, primarily affecting the voting rights of poor Black citizens. The Supreme Court later held that the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause prohibits poll taxes in state elections.
- 1971–Voting age lowered to 18: In 1971, at the height of the Vietnam War, the states ratified the 26th Amendment, which guarantees the right to vote to all U.S. citizens aged 18 and older. Popular sentiment for the amendment stemmed in significant part from the perception that many of those fighting in the war were not allowed to vote.
Today, despite the extensive progress that has been made since ratification of the original Constitution, state politics can still affect individual voting rights. For example, over 4.5 million convicted felons are still denied the right to vote based on state laws.