Skip to main content

Main Area


The history of voting in the United States

  • The history of voting in the United States

    The Supreme Court on July 6 unanimously ruled that states can require members of the electoral college to vote for the candidate who wins the popular vote. To appreciate the significance of this ruling and the adherence to a voting system enshrined in the U.S. Constitution since 1787, it's important to understand the long history of voting in America.

    Elections are the foundation of representative democracy. Your right to have a say at the ballot box was paid for with blood on foreign battlefields, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and debated endlessly in the halls of Congress and in living-room suffrage meetings. The right of the governed to choose their own leaders was originally reserved only for a privileged few in the ruling class. Throughout the decades and centuries, however, the franchise slowly and steadily moved beyond the exclusive grasp of the aristocracy and into the reach of the common man and, eventually, the common woman.

    Racism, sexism, fear, and tradition kept entire generations from participating in the country's most basic institution. But as barriers have gone up, they have also come down. From the very beginning, generations of bold, brave, and committed activists battled to expand the right to vote to the disenfranchised—often against great odds and sometimes at the expense of their freedom and even their lives.

    Here's a look at how voting rights have evolved in America, how much has been accomplished, and how much remains to be done.

  • 1607: The Jamestown election

    Almost immediately after landing in the New World, settlers at Jamestown, Virginia, held an election to choose a president of Great Britain's first permanent settlement in the Americas. Although the nominees were predetermined and only a select, privileged few—just 6% of the colonists—were allowed to vote, the stage had been set for the birth of democracy in what would become America. Leaders were for the first time chosen by those they would govern—or at least by some of them.

  • 1619: Jamestown Church assembly

    The first representative assembly in British America convened on July 30, 1619, when the leaders of all of Virginia's 21 plantations and corporations gathered to choose a speaker and draft a charter. The meeting at Jamestown Church was the first clear break from the British parliamentary system and the genesis of what would become American democracy. By the mid-1700s, the new model of representative government had swept all 13 colonies and voting was the norm, although few were allowed to participate and electoral systems were inconsistent from colony to colony.

  • 1776: John Adams' letter to James Sullivan

    In a letter to Massachusetts Gov. James Sullivan, founding father and Declaration of Independence signer John Adams set the tone for the limited democracy that would define early America when he cautioned against enfranchising the masses. In 1776, voting was limited to only some land-owning white men over the age of 21, and Adams warned that if those standards were lowered, "there will be no End of it. New Claims will arise. Women will demand a Vote. Lads from 12 to 21 will think their Rights not enough attended to, and every Man, who has not a Farthing, will demand an equal Voice with any other in all Acts of State. It tends to confound and destroy all Distinctions, and prostrate all Ranks, to one common Levell."

  • 1787: Ratification of Article I of the Constitution

    Article I of the Constitution gave states the authority and responsibility of overseeing federal elections. It left room, however, for Congress to make laws that would override state regulations if deemed necessary.

  • 1792: Criminal disenfranchisement in Kentucky

    In a move that would reverberate throughout the centuries and into the present day, Kentucky in 1792 became the first of many states to disenfranchise people convicted of certain crimes. In much of the country even today, the right of American citizens to have a voice in their government is still determined by their status in the criminal justice system.

  • 1812: The first gerrymandered district

    Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry in 1812 approved a state Senate district shaped like a salamander. His critics mocked the district as the "Gerry-Mander." More than a century later, America is embroiled in a fierce debate about the impact and legality of gerrymandering, a term for when the party in power draws voting districts in a way that is designed to dilute the opposition vote.

  • 1824: The election of John Quincy Adams

    An odd but consequential peculiarity of American democracy called the Electoral College was put on display in 1824 when John Quincy Adams won the presidency after losing the popular vote. He was the first of five presidents who would ascend to the White House despite the fact that more Americans voted for his opponent. The first three were in the 19th century, the fourth was President George W. Bush, and the fifth is in the Oval Office today. In 2016, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton received nearly 3 million more votes than President Donald Trump.

  • 1848: The Seneca Falls convention

    Abolitionists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott solidified the women's rights movement in 1848 when they organized a historic meeting at Seneca Falls, New York. Hundreds of regular women, abolitionists, and famous freedom activists like Frederick Douglass called for equality for women in the United States for the first time. One of their central demands was the right to vote, marking the start of the women's suffrage movement.

  • 1856: Property requirement lifted

    North Carolina in 1856 became the last state to abolish the property requirement, which had restricted voting only to landowners for as long as America had been a country. Nearly all free white men could now vote, signaling one of the most significant expansions of voting rights since the founding of the republic. Free black men could vote in six northern states at that time as well, but women could not vote at all.

  • 1866: Civil Rights Act of 1866

    Congress legislated on civil rights for the first time in history when it overrode a veto by President Andrew Jackson to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1866. The bill granted citizenship to all native-born citizens, although Native Americans were excluded, and it did not guarantee the right to vote.

2018 All rights reserved.