The evolution of voting rights in the United States

Take a look at changes over time to the suppression of and ability to vote, and consider how our rights are connected.

Apr 2, 2024

Religious freedom is not possible without personal freedom, and our rights are interconnected. The right to vote and the importance of free and fair elections allow us to have a functioning system of government that protects our rights, including our right to religious freedom. The BJC Center for Faith, Justice and Reconciliation encourages you to think about how you can use your freedom to protect other freedoms — as well as others’ freedoms. Read Dr. Sabrina Dent’s generational story and review this timeline, providing a look at changes over time to the suppression of and ability to vote.


1789: Constitution gives responsibility of overseeing elections to the states
Article I of the U.S. Constitution allowed the states to determine who is qualified to vote, giving them the responsibility of overseeing elections. Most states limited voting rights to white men who owned property. The requirement to own property began to be relaxed over time, sometimes in favor of a tax to vote that was often called a “poll tax.” However, most of those taxes were abandoned by the mid-1800s.


1870: The 15th Amendment grants Black men voting rights, followed by Jim Crow suppression
Five years after the amendment ending slavery, the 15th Amendment declared that the right to vote cannot be denied because of race. But many states took steps in the decades that followed to enshrine white supremacy during the Jim Crow era. For example, former Confederate states passed laws that created literacy tests to vote, “grandfather clauses” excluding those whose ancestors had not voted or been able to vote, new poll taxes, and other ways to disenfranchise Black voters. In 1896, the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson declared that segregation did not violate the Constitution, ensuring suppression of freedom and voter intimidation for more than half a century.


1915: Guinn v. United States ruling strikes ‘grandfather clause’
The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1915 ruling in Guinn v. United States said Oklahoma’s “grandfather clause” exemption to literacy tests violated the 15th Amendment. That clause allowed voters to be exempt from literacy tests for voting if their grandfathers had the right to vote before 1866. Local officials also interpreted the state’s law as allowing them to refuse to administer literacy tests to Black people or to impose unreasonable ones. After the Supreme Court ruling, states found other ways to suppress Black voters.


1920: The 19th Amendment grants voting rights to women
Women were allowed to vote in a handful of states in the 1900s, but women nationwide won the right to vote with the 19th Amendment.


1964: The 24th Amendment ends federal poll taxes, all poll taxes end in 1966
Poll taxes continued to exist in five states in 1962, expressly designed to keep Black people and low-income white people from voting. Some states had grandfather clauses, allowing higher-income white people to avoid the tax. After other efforts failed, the 24th Amendment became law, but it only abolished poll taxes for federal elections. In Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections (1966), the Supreme Court ruled poll taxes unconstitutional in any U.S. election under the Equal Protection Clause. Evelyn Thomas Butts was part of that case — read more about her below, and the timeline continues.

    In 1963, Evelyn Thomas Butts, a Black woman in Norfolk, Va., challenged the poll tax required to vote. A mother of three and a seamstress, she could not afford to pay the tax, so she sued the governor of Virginia for violating her rights. Her case was later combined with Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections, and the Supreme Court ruled in her favor in 1966, finding poll taxes for any election violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

    As a civil rights and public education advocate on this and other issues, Evelyn Thomas Butts also influenced thousands of people to register to vote, fighting back against illegal and unethical practices that minimized the electoral power of the Black community. Her moral courage — like so many Black women throughout history — models how we can systematically address injustices that often disenfranchise voters of color, college students, people with disabilities, seniors and many others.

    1965: The Voting Rights Act
    Southern states continued to use various methods to suppress voters of color. A 1965 march to spotlight the issue in Alabama ended in a brutal attack by police and others in Selma, known as “Bloody Sunday.” Congress passed the Voting Rights Act later that year, which barred many policies and practices used by states to limit voting among targeted groups. The Act also required jurisdictions with a pattern of race-based voter suppression to submit proposed changes in election laws to the U.S. Department of Justice for approval, a process known as “preclearance.”


    1971: The 26th Amendment lowers the voting age to 18
    States generally restricted the voting age to 21 and older, but the reality of Americans aged 18 being drafted to fight in Vietnam created a call to lower the voting age. The 26th Amendment prohibited states and the federal government from using age as a reason to deny the vote to anyone 18 and older.


    1975: Voting Rights Act addresses language barriers
    Congress expanded the Voting Rights Act in 1975, adding protections for members of language minority groups. The new section required areas with significant numbers of voters with limited English proficiency to provide voting materials and assistance in other languages.


    1982: New protections for people with disabilities
    In extending the Voting Rights Act for another 25 years in 1982, Congress added provisions to make voting more accessible for the elderly and people with disabilities. This part of the Act was not subject to any formula to determine who qualifies for assistance.


    1993: National Voter Registration Act
    In making voter registration more accessible, this Act required states to allow voter registration when citizens apply for drivers’ licenses and to offer mail-in voter registration. In its first year, more than 30 million people completed or updated their registration through methods made available by this law.


    2002: Help America Vote Act
    After problems in the 2000 election, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act. It mandated significant changes in election administration, such as the replacement of outdated voting equipment, creation of statewide voter registration lists, and provisional ballots to ensure that eligible voters are not turned away.


    2013: Shelby County v. Holder guts Voting Rights Act
    The U.S. Supreme Court declared the “preclearance” part of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional in its Shelby County v. Holder decision. On the same day, Texas officials instituted a strict voter identification law that previously had been blocked. Similar laws began to appear in other states.


    2020: Widespread claims of voter fraud without evidence
    President Donald Trump and his allies pushed baseless claims of mass voter fraud in cities that are majority Black or have significant Black populations.


    2019-present: Legislation to restore voting rights
    There are two voting rights bills currently in Congress. The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would create an updated preclearance formula and revitalize the Voting Rights Act. It passed the House in 2019 and 2021, but it did not pass the Senate. The Freedom to Vote Act contains various provisions that protect ballot access. Both were mentioned during the 2024 State of the Union address.


    2024: Various deadlines loom for the November election
    Every state and every local municipality has different deadlines to register to vote and to sign up to be an election worker. Visit your local and/or state’s election administration websites to see your opportunities, and check out the Faith in Elections playbook for ways you and your house of worship can work to ensure free and fair elections, such as sharing trustworthy information about voting registration deadlines with others or signing up to be an election worker. The nonpartisan U.S. Vote Foundation website can help you find local information:

    Current state of (dis)voting

    An estimated 4.6 million Americans are barred from voting due to a felony conviction, according to the Sentencing Project.

    The more than 600,000 citizens who live in the nation’s capital of Washington, D.C., do not have voting representation in the House of Representatives or the U.S. Senate. This is because D.C. is a federal district and not a state and, under the Constitution, only states are apportioned congresspersons.

    The more than 3 million U.S. citizens and non-citizen nationals who reside in American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, or the United States Virgin Islands are not entitled to electoral college votes in U.S. presidential elections — these territories do vote in presidential primaries, but without representation in the electoral college, they do not get a vote in the general election.

    For more information on the history of voting rights in the United States, read “Voting Rights: A Short History” on the website and “America’s long history of Black voter suppression” on the website.

    This timeline first appeared in the spring 2024 edition of Report from the Capital.  You can download it as a PDF or read a digital flip-through edition