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Voting Rights

Voting In A Democracy

The United States is a representative democracy. The efficacy of representative government depends, in large part, on the participation of its citizens. The most effective form of participation granted to the subjects of a representative democracy is voting. Although the right to vote for all members of American society above the age of 18 is a foregone conclusion, this was not the case at one time. Various laws and practices have served to deny the right to vote to certain members of society. Since its inception the United States has treated the issue of voting rights with caution. The nation gained its independence behind the battle cry of "taxation without representation" which brought the issue to the fore during the Constitutional Convention. Perhaps because voting rights was such a volatile issue for the young nation the founders elected to leave the matter to the states to resolve. The Constitution established two provisions concerning the right to vote: first, it stipulates that those who were eligible to vote in the state legislatures were also entitled to vote in elections to the House of Representatives; second, it reserved the right to determine the time and place of elections to Congress. Thus, although the Constitution did not explicitly deny the right to vote to minorities and women, neither did it protect the privilege until the ratification of the Fifteenth (right to vote for minorities) and Nineteenth (right to vote for women) Amendments.

The Supreme Court has often been an instrument used to rectify social injustices throughout American history. However, in the case of women's rights the Court has not been a positive force. In Minor v. Happersett (1875) the Supreme Court ruled that granting voting rights only to men in a state constitution did not violate the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Women were not initially denied the right to vote, however. It became such a common practice that states began to establish laws prohibiting women's suffrage in the late eighteenth century. Building on the momentum provided by the leadership of women such as Abigail Adams (the wife of John Adams), Margaret Brent, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony, women began to organize a voting rights movement in the nineteenthth century. Their efforts culminated in the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.

After the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment there was little legal resistance to women's suffrage. This does not mean that voting rights for women was not met with resistance. In colonial America women were subservient to men in more ways than political expression. Often men would prohibit their wives from voting long after the right to vote had been constitutionally granted. Thus a substantial portion of the struggle for women's suffrage is not documented by the courts. This was not the case in the voting rights movement for African Americans after the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationGreat American Court CasesVoting Rights - Voting In A Democracy, State Powers, Discriminatory Practices, Courts Try To Strike Back, Representation