This is a multiple-anniversary year for suffrage in our nation! Indiana residents must register to vote by October 5th. See our state voting requirements here.
In the last century, only 50-60 percent of eligible citizens voted in United States presidential elections. It was around 80 percent in the previous century.
According to the Constitution of the United States, voting is a right and a privilege. It is not mandatory. Our Constitutional Congress followed English Common Law, which restricted voting by class well into the 19th century: the UK National Archives states that in 1780 less than 3 percent of the population could vote.
U.S. citizens have never voted directly for President: we vote for a slate of Electors. The Supreme Court affirmed during its last session in Chiafalo v. Washington that these Electors may not change, but must vote for the candidate they pledged to. Read the decision here.
In the early days of our republic, Election Day was a holiday in many states and remains so in some, including Indiana. That it is not a federal holiday today is a cause of concern, as people’s work schedules often prevent their voting. Our subscription database Opposing Viewpoints in Context covers current controversies over elections in the United States.
Originally, citizens in different states voted at different times for their presidential Electors, from the beginning of November up to the meeting of the Electoral College in December. In 1845 Congress passed the Presidential Election Day Act, setting the date for “the Tuesday following the first Monday in November.” Elections for the House of Representatives were then moved to this same day.
In 2020 we celebrate several anniversaries for voting rights. African-American men were enfranchised in 1870 by the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Women were granted suffrage in by the Nineteenth Amendment, ratified by the states in 1920.
The 1924 Snyder Act granted citizenship to Native Americans born in the U.S., and thus conferred on them the right to vote. However many states still denied Native people enfranchisement. The state of Maine was the last to comply, prompted by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This act prohibited the use of poll taxes and tests that were infamously used to disenfranchise African Americans.
2020 is also the 50th anniversary of the Kent State shootings, when students protesting the Vietnam War were killed and wounded by Ohio National Guardsmen. Read a historical summary of the event from Kent State faculty here. At that time, men could be drafted into military service at age 18 – three years before the legal voting age of 21. A majority of people came to feel this was unfair: “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote” was the slogan. The Twenty-Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, quickly proposed and passed during the spring of 1971, lowered the voting age to 18.
This federal government webpage provides general information about who can vote in federal elections. Some citizens are excluded.
Current voting rights campaigns are focusing on felons, whose voting rights depend on their state government. Only Maine and Vermont allow imprisoned persons to vote. Most other states restore voting rights after sentence has been served, but the person must re-register. And some states deny felons the right to vote indefinitely. To find out more about the voting rights of convicted felons, visit this webpage from the bipartisan National Council of State Legislatures.
During the last year, arguments have raged about voting by mail. The current bill in the House of Representatives, the Universal Right to Vote by Mail Act, was first introduced over ten years ago. You can track legislation using the website Congress.gov: simply choose Legislation at the left of the search box and type in your search terms.
Absentee ballots are also handled by mail. They can be requested in all states; some states require that an excuse be given in writing. In Indiana, absentee ballot applications must be received by your county board of elections by October 22nd this year. Here is absentee ballot information for Indiana voters.
The Library of Congress has primary source document sets with teaching materials for all the presidential elections. This webpage contains many useful links to their other resources on elections. These include a slideshow of past presidential campaign posters (requires Flash player). And the National Archives maintains links to all the Presidential Libraries.
Sources used in this article:
The American Presidency Project. University of California at Santa Barbara. (n.d.). Voter turnout in presidential elections. https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/statistics/data/voter-turnout-in-presidential-elections
National Archives (Great Britain). (n.d.). Getting the vote. http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/citizenship/struggle_democracy/getting_vote.htm