A Brief History of the Right to Vote

By Brian Craig- Globe University/Minnesota School of Business Online Paralegal Program Chair

The general election held on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012 will decide the fate of the country for years to come. Not only will voters decide the next U.S. President, but voters will also cast votes for many other key offices and races. Many citizens take the right to vote for granted, but the right to vote did not come easy for many Americans.

Suffrage is defined as “the right or privilege of casting a vote at a public election.” See Black’s Law Dictionary (9th ed. 2009). Voting is both a right and a privilege. Some of the key constitutional amendments to the U.S. Constitution and contested issues in American history have revolved around voting rights. The 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870 as one
of the post Civil War Reconstruction era amendments, granted African American men the right to vote. The 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920, granted to the right to vote to women. The 26th Amendment, ratified in 1971, extended the right to vote to any person age 18 or older.

The U.S. Constitution provides in Article II, Section 1, Clause 4 that “[t]he Congress may determine the Time of chusing the Electors, and the Day on which they shall give their Votes; which Day shall be the same throughout the United States.” In 1845, Congress established the date for the general election in a presidential year to be the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. The general election held on November 6 is the process whereby presidential electors are chosen by popular vote in each state, also known as the Electoral College. Some people have advocated eliminating the Electoral College and choosing the U.S. President through a popular vote, but the Electoral College remains a key part of the process for electing the President in the U.S. Constitution and in American history.

Along with the contested presidential election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, there are a variety of other important races for voters to decide. Members of Congress from the U.S. House of Representatives serve two-year terms so all 435 seats in the House are up for re-election this November. U.S. Senators serve six-year terms so one-third of the U.S. Senate will be contested this election. Key U.S. Senate races this year are being decided in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida. There are also a number of local elections for voters to decide. Voters decide on representatives in the state legislature along with city and county races. Voters may also cast votes for key propositions on certain issues.

Voter registration requirements vary from state to state. To qualify as a voter, a person generally must be a citizen of the United States, at least 18 years of age, and not in prison or on parole for a felony conviction. Some states prohibit any person who has been convicted of a felony from voting but requirements vary by state. Many states require that voters register at least 30 days before the election. Other states allow for same day registration. Check the secretary of state website for voter registration requirements in your individual state. For example, if you live in Wisconsin, run an Internet search for “register to vote in Wisconsin” to find out the state requirements. Regardless of where you live or your political ideology, all citizens should exercise their right to vote this November and learn about the candidates and issues.

As President Theodore Roosevelt once wrote “[a] vote is like a rifle: its usefulness depends upon the character of the user.”