More than fifty years ago Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote powerful words about citizenship and human rights: “Citizenship is man’s basic right, for it is nothing less than the right to have rights.” Earlier, in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations, prepared by a group which prominently included Eleanor Roosevelt, proclaimed that, “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”
Yet the right to vote as a human right has had a checkered history in our country. Early on, only people owning a certain amount of property could vote. Sometimes, if one held property in two counties, one could vote in each. Only adult males could vote. Slaves, of course, could not vote, and in most states before the Civil War, including those in the North, free African Americans could not vote or, as in New York, they had to own a specified amount of property while white males could vote without owning property. It took two Constitutional amendments, the 14th and 15th, enacted just after the Civil War, to make African Americans U. S. citizens and to prohibit states from restricting their vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Some states evaded the Constitution by establishing literacy requirements which applied to blacks but not to whites (“grandfather clauses”) or which required voters to show an ability to interpret the state constitution to the satisfaction of a local registrar—who strangely found that African Americans always failed while whites always passed this particular hurdle. Women did not gain the vote at the national level until 1920, taking the 19th Amendment to enable them, though some states had done so earlier. Eighteen-year-olds (“old enough to fight, old enough to vote”) had to wait until the 26th Amendment allowed them to do so in 1971. And, of course, the right to vote ordinarily applied only to citizens. American Indians living on reservations didn’t achieve this status until 1924, and some states dragged their feet about Native American voting until the 1940s.
Even for those eligible to vote, some states used poll taxes to limit voting, until the 24th Amendment won ratification in 1964. This practice deliberately targeted less affluent citizens and could be manipulated (and was) by the more prosperous who sometimes paid the tax for their tenants or dependents to inflate their own influence in elections. In other instances, local jurisdictions used strict residency and registration requirements to restrict otherwise eligible citizens, especially those who changed addresses frequently or could not leave work to register during “bankers’ hours.” Once, in a New York City municipal election, officials decreed that the only day voters could register was on Yom Kippur, a Jewish Holiday on which the faithful were forbidden to undertake public activities. Special laws had to be passed to enable soldiers away from home to vote, in 1942; to place states with a history of racial discrimination under federal supervision, in 1965; and to ease the voter registration process by linking it to driver’s license renewal or application for social or disability services, in 1993.
In sum, voting rights as human rights have long been contested, and denied. Those who believe in “universal and equal suffrage” must be constantly vigilant about attempts to keep their fellow citizens from voting.
Roland Guyotte is a Professor of History at UMM and a member of the Morris Human Rights Commission.
This article is part of a 15-week series on human rights organized by the Morris Human Rights Commission to celebrate their 15th anniversary. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the Morris Human Rights Commission, but of individual members and contributors, as the HRC advocates free speech and discussion.