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What is suffrage? Simply put, suffrage is the right to vote. Today, suffrage is one of the major principles of democracy. Some countries that haven't historically been led by democratic governments are just now allowing their citizens to vote in general elections.

In the United States today, every man and woman who is at least 18 has the right to vote in general government elections. But this wasn't always the case. America's history is filled with changes to the voting laws.


The U.S. Constitution was adopted. In Article II, the founding fathers, or "framers," described the process that the country would undergo to elect its presidents and vice-presidents, including the creation of the Electoral College.

Image: The U.S. Constitution
Source: National Archives and Records Administration

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  The first presidential election was held. The Electoral College unanimously elected George Washington.  
  New states quickly started joining the union, each developing and adopting its own constitution. Most of these states specified that only white, adult men could vote in elections. Other states restricted the right to vote to white men who owned property or who paid taxes. Generally, only a few free northern or southern blacks could vote. Women could not vote anywhere, even if they owned property.  
  Women, such as Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, began to form groups that worked to gain greater rights for women. These groups argued that men and women were created as equals and they supported many reforms that would advance the status of women in society. Among the reforms for which they fought was the right to vote.  
Wisconsin became the 30th state in the union. Its constitution adopted the most liberal voting laws in the country. Aliens in Wisconsin could vote if they'd resided in the state for one year and declared their intent to become citizens. Other states agreed with Wisconsin's policy and quickly adopted similar laws.

Also in 1848, the Woman's Rights Convention was held in Seneca Falls, N.Y. The attendees agreed that women should have greater rights, such as the opportunity to go to college, become doctors and lawyers, own land, and vote. 

Image: Declaration of Rights and Sentiments from the Woman's Rights Convention
Source: Library of Congress

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  A group of anti-immigrants formed a new political party, the Know-Nothings. As part of their platform, they supported literacy tests, which required that one prove he could read and write the English language before he could vote. Since few immigrants and blacks (whether free or slaves) were literate, literacy tests were a way to prevent these groups from voting.   
  When the Civil War ended, blacks began demanding political rights, including the right to vote. Some Radical Republicans, who wanted to punish the confederate leaders and protect the rights of former slaves, supported their efforts.  
Congress adopted the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. Section 2 of this amendment attempted to protect all U.S. male residents who were at least 21 years old from voting obstacles. Any state that tried to prevent members of this group from voting would lose a proportionate number of its members of the House of Representatives and electors in the Electoral College.

Also in 1866, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony founded the American Equal Rights Association. Men and women of all races were invited to join this group, which supported suffrage for everyone, regardless of race, color, or sex.

Image: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony
Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ61-791 DLC]

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  Congress adopted the 15th Amendment to the Constitution. This Amendment took the 14th Amendment one step further by formally granting all men the right to vote, regardless of their race, color, or previous servitude. By using the word men, women were specifically excluded from the right to vote.

Also in 1869, the women's suffrage movement split into two separate groups. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony led the National Woman Suffrage Association, which opposed the ratification of the 15th Amendment on the grounds that it didn't grant women the right to vote and supported the notion of a new amendment that would grant universal suffrage. Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe formed the American Woman Suffrage Association, which proposed that the fight would be more easily won by getting states to pass individual laws granting suffrage. 

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Sojourner Truth attempted to vote in the presidential election. Stanton was arrested and tried in court. Truth was turned away at the polls.

Image: Sojourner Truth
Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [reproduction number LC-USZ62-119343 DLC]

  An act to amend the Constitution to grant women the right to vote was introduced into Congress. It took legislators 42 years to adopt the amendment and obtain ratification by the states.  
  Some Southern states, still reeling from the Civil War, did not believe that the 15th Amendment was a guarantee of suffrage. Instead, they believed that it prohibited them from denying someone the right to vote strictly because of his race or color. To that end, these states developed creative ways of preventing blacks from voting, such as complicated ballot boxes that illiterates couldn't read, poll taxes they couldn't pay, and literacy tests they couldn't pass.  
  The National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association banded together to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton. During the 1890s, in an effort to encourage men to vote freely, many states adopted the secret ballot, which made it impossible for party bosses to intimidate voters by monitoring voting habits. The secret ballot also made it possible for voters to split their tickets, or to select candidates from different parties on the same ballot.  
  Despite the efforts of early feminists in the 1840s, the women's suffrage movement just now began to pick up steam. Many groups, such as the National Women's Party, the National Federation of Women's Clubs, and Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive/Bull Moose Party, supported the suffragists' cause. The suffragists, led by Anna Howard Shaw, Carrie Chapman Catt, and Jane Addams, argued that women deserved the same rights as men and that a woman's role to others was secondary to her role to society. Opponents believed that under the natural order of society, women should be subservient to men, and that allowing them to vote could lead to the neglect of their children and families.  
On August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, granting women the right to vote. The National American Woman Suffrage Association eventually became the League of Women Voters, a group that is still active today.


Image: House Joint Resolution 1 Proposing the 19th Amendment to the States
Source: National Archives and Records Administration

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  Throughout the earlier part of the 20th century, the Jim Crow laws kept southern blacks from voting, even though blacks had won the right to vote in 1869. Thus, on January 23, 1964, the 24th Amendment was ratified, prohibiting states from using poll taxes to keep minorities from voting.   
  President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. This federal law reiterated the rights granted under the 15th Amendment, but went further by protecting blacks and minorities from any other state-supported obstacles, such as literacy tests and complicated ballot boxes, that could keep them from voting.  
  On July 1, 1971, the 26th Amendment was ratified, lowering the minimum voting age from 21 to 18. Since this was a Constitutional amendment that was ratified by the states, this minimum age applied to all federal, state, and local elections of any kind.

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