When the Constitution was written, only white male property
owners (about 10 to 16 percent of the nation's population) had the vote. Over
the past two centuries, though, the term "government by the people" has become a
reality. During the early 1800s, states gradually dropped property requirements
for voting. Later, groups that had been excluded previously gained the right to
vote. Other reforms made the process fairer and easier.
1790 Only white male adult property-owners have the right
to vote. Nineteenth Century
1810 Last religious prerequisite for voting is
1850 Property ownership and tax requirements eliminated by
1850. Almost all adult white males could vote.
1855 Connecticut adopts the nation's first literacy test for
voting. Massachusetts follows suit in 1857. The tests were implemented to
discriminate against Irish-Catholic immigrants.
1870 The 15th Amendment is passed. It gives former
slaves the right to vote and protects the voting rights of adult male citizens
of any race.
1889 Florida adopts a poll tax. Ten other southern states will
implement poll taxes.
1890 Mississippi adopts a literacy test to keep African
Americans from voting. Numerous other states—not just in the south—also
establish literacy tests. However, the tests also exclude many whites from
voting. To get around this, states add grandfather clauses that allow those who
could vote before 1870, or their descendants, to vote regardless of literacy or
1913 The 17th Amendment calls for members of the U.S.
Senate to be elected directly by the people instead of State
1915 Oklahoma was the last state to append a grandfather
clause to its literacy requirement (1910). In Guinn v. United
States the Supreme Court rules that the clause is in
conflict with the 15th Amendment, thereby outlawing literacy tests for federal
1924 Indian Citizenship Act grants all Native Americans
the rights of citizenship, including the right to vote in federal
1944 The Supreme Court outlaws "white primaries" in
Smith v. Allwright (Texas). In Texas, and other states, primaries
were conducted by private associations, which, by definion, could exclude
whomever they chose. The Court declares the nomination process to be a public
process bound by the terms of 15th Amendment.
1957 The first law to implement the 15th amendment, the
Civil Rights Act, is passed. The Act set up the Civil Rights Commission—among
its duties is to investigate voter discrimination.
1960 In Gomillion v. Lightfoot (Alabama)
the Court outlaws "gerrymandering."
1961 The 23rd Amendment allows voters of the District of
Columbia to participate in presidential elections.
1964 The 24th Amendment bans the poll tax as a requirement
for voting in federal elections.
1965 The Voting Rights Act protects the rights of minority
voters and eliminates voting barriers such as the literacy test. The Act is
expanded and renewed in 1970, 1975, and 1982.
1966 The Supreme Court, in Harper v. Virginia
Board of Elections, eliminates the poll tax as a qualification for voting
in any election. A poll tax was still in use in Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, and
1966 The Court upholds the Voting Rights Act in South
Carolina v. Katzenbach.
1970 Literacy requirements are banned for five years by the
1970 renewal of the Voting Rights Act. At the time, eighteen states still have a
literacy requirement in place. In Oregon v. Mitchell, the
Court upholds the ban on literacy tests, which is made permanent in 1975. Judge Hugo
Black, writing the court's opinion, cited the "long history of the
discriminatory use of literacy tests to disenfranchise voters on account of
their race" as the reason for their decision.
1971 The 26th amendment sets the minimum voting age at
1972 In Dunn v. Blumstein, the Supreme
Court declares that lengthy residence requirements for voting in state
and local elections is unconstitutional and suggests that 30 days is an ample
1995 The Federal "Motor Voter Law" takes effect, making it
easier to register to vote.
2003 Federal Voting Standards and Procedures Act requires
states to streamline registration, voting, and other election