There is a myth among election law experts that voting is a fundamental right in the United States. However, the Supreme Court’s recent Husted v. Philips Randolph Institute upholding Ohio’s voter purge law and Minnesota Voter Alliance v. Mansky striking down Minnesota’s political apparel ban are only latest instances demonstrating that the right to vote in America is less than fundamental. These cases are part of the second great disenfranchisement in American politics. Like the first one after the end of Reconstruction, this one too aims to rig the election process, entrenching one set of interests in power.
The story of voting rights in America is one of exceptionalism. In 1787 when the US Constitution was drafted the right to vote was absent from the text. The Constitution then (and still to this day because the Electoral College actually picks the president) did not a grant a right to vote for president. Senators were chosen by the state legislatures. While members of the House of Representatives could be selected by the people, who could vote was a matter of state law, with franchise generally limited to property-owning white males, at least 21 years old, who were citizens and members of a church or particular faith.
The traditional story of voting rights in America tells how franchise and democracy expanded over time. First in the 1820s states started dropping property requirements to vote and began allowing qualified individuals the right to pick the electors who selected the president. Then there would be the story of the adoption of Fifteen, Nineteenth, and twenty-sixth Amendments granting the right to vote to freed male slaves, women, and eighteen-year-olds.
There would also be the story of the Seventeenth Amendment allowing for direct popular vote of senators, the Twenty Fourth Amendment eliminating the poll tax, and the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act, and the 1965 Voting Rights expanding voting rights to Native-Americans and people of color. These amendments and laws, along with Supreme Court cases such as US v. Classic and Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, are part of an election law canon supposedly guaranteeing the right to vote as fundamental.
Except the right to vote in the United State is less than fundamental. The other side of the story of voting rights in America is how tenuous and contingent franchise is, and how much pressure there has also been to restrict it. The United States is the only country in the world that still does not have in its Constitution an explicit clause affirmatively granting a right to vote for all or some of its citizens.
The 15th, 19th, and 26th Amendments do not actually grant an affirmative right to vote – they merely prevent denial of franchise on account of race, gender, or age. One consequence of this less than fundamental right is that the US has one of the lowest rates of voting among democracies in the world. Voting is stratified by race, class, and gender. While most legal restrictions in place on franchise in 1787 have been eliminated, in reality the profile of those who vote today is almost identical to what it was back then.
With each push to expand franchise a counterpunch responded to contract it. During the first great enfranchisement after the Civil War, Congress enacted civil rights legislation and adopted constitutional amendments during Reconstruction in order to establish voting rights for freed male slaves. It worked until Reconstruction ended in 1877 and the Jim Crow Era commenced.
Tools as explicit as lynchings were deployed to dissuade African-Americans from voting, but so too were felon disenfranchisement laws, poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather laws. These techniques successfully wipe out the right to vote for many for nearly another century.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘Less Than Fundamental: the Myth of Voting Rights in America’.