How have we expanded voting rights over time?

Throughout U.S. history, access to the ballot box has expanded slowly but steadily.

When the Constitution was ratified in 1787, there was no national standard for who was eligible to vote. States held all the power, and most restricted the franchise to white men who were landowners.

When George Washington was first elected President in 1789, only 6% of people living in the United States could vote.


By 1840, states had largely abandoned property ownership requirements and 90% of adult white men could vote. North Carolina was the last state to do so, in 1856.


The next large expansion of the right to vote was the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, prohibiting the government from limiting voting on the basis of race, at least in theory...

The 15th Amendment reads as follows:

Section 1 The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Section 2 The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

That second section is important. The Constitution doesn’t enforce itself – legislative, executive, and judicial actions are all necessary to guarantee the rights it grants.

Case in point: despite the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870, Black men (particularly in the south) found themselves no closer to actually voting. Racist practices and policies like literacy tests and poll taxes kept them from the polling place for nearly another century, until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That law gave the federal government more tools to actually enforce the guarantee of the 15th Amendment.

And of course, the 15th Amendment only applied to men. Women were forced to wait until 1920 before being able to vote, and Black women even longer.

The Wyoming territory had allowed women to vote since 1869, and included the right in its constitution when it became a state in 1890 – the first state to do so. Other states followed over the next several decades.


On August 18th, 1920 Tennessee became the 36th and final state to ratify the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote nationwide.


It took nearly 80 years to win the battle over women’s suffrage, and the fight was not complete with the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Just like Black men after the 15th Amendment, Black women in the Jim Crow south were effectively prevented from voting by racist policies and violent reprisal until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Nor were Black women equal partners in the suffrage movement – they were often excluded by white women who thought their cause would benefit by doing so.

Native Americans were granted citizenship in 1924, yet they continued to face state legal barriers to voting until the late 1940s. A combination of legislation and court cases eventually removed those barriers.

The 23rd Amendment granted residents of Washington D.C. the right to vote for President, though they (and residents of U.S. territories like Puerto Rico) remain without full representation in Congress to this day.


The promises of the 15th and 19th Amendments weren’t fully realized until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The 24th Amendment banned poll taxes in 1961...

...and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 banned racially discriminatory state voting laws and gave the federal government significant power to enforce that ban.

The 26th Amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 in 1971.

Most states deny the right to vote to convicted felons, but those restrictions have loosened over the last 50 years.

To learn more about the history of voting rights in America generally, check out this video from the New York Times, this lecture from Khan Academy, and this timeline from the Northern California Citizenship Project.

To learn more about how activists pressured the U.S. Senate and President Woodrow Wilson to approve the 19th Amendment—and about how Black women in particular were excluded from the movement—watch the premiere performance of the EMK Institute’s Citizen’s Senate program.

Efforts to roll back or limit the restoration of voting rights to convicted felons in Florida started almost immediately upon the passage of Amendment 4 in 2018. NPR’s Supreme Court reporter Nina Totenberg has a good synopsis of the fight and the current situation.

Learn more about the voting rights of convicted felons in the National Conference of State Legislatures’ state-by-state rundown.

Read Mother Jones reporter Ari Berman’s Give Us the Ballot, on the voting rights movement since the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Further reading: