By Jennifer Nicoll Victor, Ph.D., George Mason University
The word suffrage derives from the Latin word suffragium, which meant voting tablet or ballot. Nowadays, suffrage simply refers to the right to vote. When the United States Constitution was ratified, only a small proportion of people had suffrage rights. In those early days, the right to vote was granted to those who were white, male, Protestant, and who owned property.
History of Suffrage Rights
By modern definitions, America during this period would not have been considered either a democracy or a democratic republic because suffrage rights were defined so narrowly. But voting rights did not remain this narrow for very long. Through the early 1800s, many of the restrictions on religion and property ownership were dropped, and by the middle of the 1800s, the primary restrictions about voting had to do with race and gender. By 1840, most white males had the right to vote.
In the 1800s, women became instrumental in a number of social and political movements, with the woman’s suffrage movement strongly tied to the abolitionist movement to end slavery. In 1848, activists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott hosted a convention in Seneca Falls, New York, where participants agreed to work toward universal woman suffrage.
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Women’s Suffrage Movement and the 15th Amendment
The wording of the 15th Amendment states that the right of citizens to vote shall not be denied on account of race or color but was silent with respect to women and many women took this to be an explicit exclusion. As the movement for women’s suffrage grew, it became more complicated, with competing factions emphasizing different political strategies.
Over time, many states opted to give women the vote, but it was not guaranteed at the federal level until the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Many feared politics would fundamentally change as a result of women having the right to vote, but it didn’t.
It’s important to note that due to various restrictions on voting rights for people of color, the 19th Amendment only secured voting rights for white women. For African Americans, the journey toward universal suffrage was much longer and more fraught. After the 15th Amendment passed in 1870, most localities established voting rights for African Americans, but these rights were not long-lasting.
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African Americans and the Jim Crow Laws
In the 1880s, many southern states began to establish severe restrictions on the ways African Americans could contribute to society. These restrictive policies were collectively known as Jim Crow laws, and included limits on voting rights through poll taxes, so-called grandfather clauses—which awarded voting rights only to those who could show that their grandfathers had voting rights—as well as explicit segregation, exclusions, and tactics of intimidation.
These restrictions remained in place for nearly a century until they were ultimately ended as a result of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1965, Congress passed, and President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which finally expanded suffrage rights to African Americans in the South.
The 26th Amendment
The next great expansion of suffrage came in 1971 when Congress passed the 26th Amendment, which granted suffrage for anyone 18 years and older. This change came as a result of the United States’ controversial military action in Vietnam. As 18, 19, and 20-year-olds were drafted to fight in a war that became increasingly unpopular, the demand grew to allow that population the vote.
It became nearly impossible to justify a government that felt 18-year-olds were old enough to die for their country but not old enough to officially participate in the election of leaders who make choices about when to wage war. Despite all of these struggles for suffrage, having the right to vote is not the same thing as exercising that right.
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The Low Voter Turnout in the US
Compared to many other democratic countries, the United States tends to have a much lower voter turnout. There are a number of explanations for this. To compare the United States to a country like Australia, for example, the explanation is quite clear. In the United States, there is no penalty for not voting, whereas in Australia, voting is mandatory, and failure to participate in elections can result in a fine.
Second, the United States has been a democracy for nearly 250 years. In general, the population views the institutions as permanent fixtures, and the government is accepted as a legitimate authority, so there is no urgency to protect them by casting a vote. In countries where democracy is newer, however, government institutions are less stable, and people have less confidence in government, so voter turnout is higher.
Somewhat paradoxically, there is a strong negative correlation between the strength and authority of democratic institutions and the rate with which citizens participate in democracy. By this reasoning, comparatively low voter turnout in the United States is actually a kind of a sign of the relative strength of its democratic institutions.
Frequent Elections and the American Electorate
The third reason for low voter turnout in the United States is that Americans tend to be asked to vote very often. There are elections for president every four years, Congress every two years, and state, county, and municipal leadership are regularly selected through elections across the United States.
There are even primary elections to select candidates that parties will support in a general election. This all adds up to citizens being asked to vote with great frequency and sometimes with very long ballots. Some Americans may have election fatigue or simply not enough time or personal bandwidth to engage in all of this democratic decision-making.
Furthermore, for those who are satisfied with their lifestyle, economic status, and level of access to government, it may feel okay to sit out an election or two. People are more likely to turn out for an election when they are dissatisfied with the status quo.
Common Questions about Suffrage Rights in the USA
Due to various restrictions on voting rights for people of color, the 19th Amendment only secured suffrage rights for white women.
With the passage of the 26th Amendment by Congress, suffrage rights were granted to all people 18 and over. The reason was 18-year-olds were drafted to take part in the controversial military action in Vietnam, and if they were old enough to fight and die for their country, they were certainly old enough to vote.
In 1965, Congress passed, and President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which finally expanded suffrage rights to African Americans in the South.