Executive Summary

  • The story of voting rights in America is the story of progress. Although America once limited the franchise to white, male, property owners, today every American over the age of 18 has the right to vote. This right is protected not only by the U.S. Constitution but also by federal statute.
  • The 15th Amendment, adopted after the Civil War, enfranchised formerly enslaved men by prohibiting the denial or abridgement of the right to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
  • Despite this constitutional guarantee, for many years the states that made up the former Confederacy used intimidation, threats, and discriminatory voting practices to keep significant numbers of black people from the polls.
  • In 1965, Congress passed the landmark Voting Rights Act to give the federal government broad power to enforce the 15th Amendment.
  • The Voting Rights Act worked. Within just a few years, millions of black citizens registered to vote and soon began voting in numbers comparable with whites.
  • The Voting Rights Act’s prohibition of discriminatory voting practices is permanent and applies nationwide.
  • But the section of the Act that gives the federal government veto power over local elections rules in some parts of the country was supposed to be temporary.
  • The Voting Rights Act was passed to guarantee the franchise. It was never intended to prohibit states from enacting common sense election rules aimed at preventing voter fraud and abuse.
  • The federal government still has an important role to play in deterring and prosecuting voting rights violations, but Washington, D.C., should not micromanage local election procedures in jurisdictions that have no recent history of voting discrimination.