Suffrage is the right or privilege of voting to choose candidates or laws in a public election. It has been known and regulated since classical times. In England, in 1430, Parliament restricted voting privileges in its elections to freeholders of realty that yielded 40 shillings of yearly income. These were no more than 15 percent of adult males. In the American colonies land was cheap; rank was fluid; and suffrage restrictions, such as property, civility, and religious qualifications, were casually enforced and easily evaded. Available eighteenth-century voting records suggest that most adult white males could vote in local elections because half to three-quarters of them actually did vote.

In the United States war was often a catalyst of suffrage extensions. Religious qualifications were largely abandoned during and after the Revolution. So were property qualifications, though later and more grudgingly, as landless veterans sought a voice in government, as party competition became the rule, and as property qualifications proved hard to enforce. Often they were replaced by a poll-tax requirement. Rhode Island was the last state to drop the freehold requirement, responding to the failed “Dorr Rebellion” of 1841. Women and blacks were generally unfranchised, though a few free blacks could vote in New England and New York. Virtually all suffrage disputes before the Civil War were decided by the states.

After the Civil War, Radical Republicans in Congress became concerned with suffrage, primarily to block a resurgence of Southern Democrats. With the Fourteenth Amendment, 1868, they attempted to disfranchise Southern whites without threatening to enfranchise more Northern blacks. With the Fifteenth Amendment, 1870, they barred the states from racially restricting the franchise of U.S. citizens. But they neglected to ban literacy or character tests, or registration or poll tax requirements. These were later used, along with White Primaries and grandfather clauses, to keep Southern blacks (and poor whites) from the polls. Women’s suffrage, first fully granted by Wyoming in 1869 and later linked to nativist, reformist sentiment during the Progressive Era, was granted nationwide by the Nineteenth Amendment, 1920.

From the 1940’s on, the debate about extending suffrage shifted from legislatures to the U.S. Supreme Court, with more emphasis on the constitutional rights of the unfranchised and less concern about political results. In Smith v. Allwright, 1944, the Court ended the White Primary. In Baker v. Carr, 1962, it treated reapportionment, theretofore considered a complicated representation issue, as if it were a simple suffrage issue, “one person, one vote.”

In both cases the Court used novel constitutional doctrines to fill a void left by state and federal legislative inaction. Both cases, together with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (which suspended literacy tests and was long construed by lower federal courts to require “affirmative-action” gerrymandering), made major changes in the political landscape. In the South black voting registration rose from 5% in 1940 to 66% in 1969 and since; white registration rose from 15% to 83%. Black officeholders, vanishingly rare in the 1940’s, numbered over 2,000 by 1970. Blacks in Congress grew from one or two in the 1940’s to 40 by 1992.

Thanks to “affirmative-action” gerrymanders, most of these Black congressmen were Democrats from safe, overwhelmingly black districts, strongly committed to black issues, many with seniority. The Black Caucus was among the most powerful, united, and well-entrenched of voting blocs in the Democrat-controlled 103d Congress (1992-94). However, racial gerrymandering also contributed to the Democrats’ loss of Congress in 1994, by removing black Democrats from otherwise-winnable districts and delivering them to Republican candidates. Since 1994 the Black Caucus has been one of the least powerful blocs in Congress. Some think that partisan and incumbent-serving gerrymandering, which was likewise indirectly encouraged by “one-person, one-vote” requirements, diminished competitiveness in seats, lowered turnover, polarized party politics, and drove frustrated voters to turn to the initiative process and demand term limits for legislators.

Other suffrage extensions since 1960, enfranchising the District of Columbia for presidential elections (1961), abolishing the poll tax (1964), and enfranchising 18-year-olds (1971), took place through Constitutional amendments, not primarily through judicial interpretation. None of these have had much impact on politics, and they may be the last domestic extensions of the franchise. By the 1970’s, despite efforts to enfranchise each category, only juveniles, noncitizens, convicted felons, and insane people could not vote in most states. In California, however, mental patients were inadvertently enfranchised by legislative nonresponse to a referendum in 1972. They have voted in every election since but have made no visible difference in the state’s politics.

Ward E.Y.Elliott 750 words


J.R. Pole, Political Representation in England and the Origins of the American Republic, 1966

Chilton Williamson, American Suffrage from Property to Democracy, 1960

William Gillette, The Right to Vote: Politics and the Passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, 1965

Alan P. Grimes, The Puritan Ethic and Woman Suffrage, 1967

Ward Elliott, The Rise of Guardian Democracy: The Supreme Court’s Role in Voting Rights Disputes, 1845-1969, 1975

J. Morgan Kousser, The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restriction and the Establishment of the One-Party South, 1880-1910, 1974

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