A Brief History of Voter Registration in the United States

Upon landing in the new world the first things settlers did was hold an election. Voting was commonplace, though not uniform. Colonies pursued their own methods, policies, restrictions, and exceptions.

Voting used to be the privilege of America’s white, wealthy, and elite men. The privileged class tried to keep the power of the vote from people of color, the poor, and women since the birth of this nation.

In 1776, only white, male property owners were permitted to vote.

John Adams wrote that granting the right to vote to all would be a great detriment to proper governance. He successfully predicted that women and the poor would demand to vote alongside the wealthy and educated. Adams, like many men of his era, considered total democracy the equivalent to mob rule and anarchy.

By 1787 and the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, there were still no federal laws regarding who could vote. The decision fell to states with many maintaining the standard that favored white men of property, wealth, and education. By George Washington’s election in 1789, only 6 percent of the population was permitted to vote.

By the start of the Civil War, most white men could vote regardless of property ownership. Some state laws required literacy testing, poll taxes, and religious tests.

These obstacles were used in various parts of the United States to intentionally deny legal immigrants, newly naturalized non-white citizens, and Native Americans the right to vote. Beginning after emancipation, sporadic voter registration and intelligence testing were among the methods used to prevent freed slaves from voting in local elections.

But it was not only the Southern states that denied freed slaves the right to vote.

President Lincoln spoke out in support of extending the vote to black soldiers. However, opposition to black suffrage was potent even in the North. From 1863 to 1870, numerous Northern states and territories denied any proposal to grant voting rights to African-Americans.

Full voter registration originated in the early 19th century. State governments, dominated by wealthy white men, were concerned with the growing participation of foreign-born people voting in local elections. As a result, they instituted voter registration to ensure that non-citizens did not vote.

This stopped foreign transients from voting but also disenfranchised many poor citizens. Local politics played a big role in who was registered. Elected officials of the Democratic Party rejected the system. They felt the system targeted the poor, immigrants, and others who could voted for them.

Beginning in 1870 through the First World War, most states chose to register voters to avoid conflicts between disenfranchised voters and election officials at the polls. It was not unusual for riots to erupt at polling places.

This period saw new voter registration developments. Citizens were allowed extended periods for voter registration. The result was a significant expansion of voter participation among the working-class, the poor, and immigrants.

In the south, laws subjected black voters to arbitrary examinations by election officials who judged their understanding of the issues. Black votes were thrown out based solely in the judgment of these officials. Blacks attempting to register were often beaten and even murdered. Black homes were burned and farms and businesses were razed.

The Constitution left the determination of a voter’s’ qualifications to the individual states to decide. Politics, prejudices, and fear disenfranchised many.

Constitutional amendments enacted after the Civil War extended the right to vote to various segments of the American population. Additional amendments forbade the denial of a person’s right to vote based on birth, race, color, previous condition of servitude, failure to pay poll or other taxes, or duration of residency in a voting district.

Women’s suffrage was granted by the Nineteenth Amendment in 1919. In 1971, the voting age was lowered to 18 years of age by the Twenty-Sixth Amendment.

Over time the role the federal government has played in voter rights has increased. Constitutional amendments and legislation, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965, expanded the right citizens to vote. The Voting Rights Act also permits the federal government to investigate and prosecute discriminatory practices in electoral offices.

The history of voting in America is not pretty and much has changed since the birth of American democracy. Voting rights, even today, is a hotly contested issue.

Today, many states require citizens to register a certain number of days prior to the election. In other states, the need for proper identification is another hot button issue along with how and where a person may register.

It is clear that voter registration and voting rights will continue to be an issue that is fought over.