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Revolution and evolution: The right to vote in America

J. H. Osborne • Updated Jul 9, 2018 at 3:26 PM

This week’s Civics 101 topic: the right to vote.

• If you’re eligible to vote today and think it is your right under the United States Constitution, you’re right — but not because of the original document as ratified in 1787. It left deciding who got to vote to the states.

• In Colonial times and after the Revolutionary War, the right to vote belonged mostly to men over 21 years of age who owned property.

• A few years after the Civil War, two amendments to the Constitution expanded the right to vote.

• The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, states that men age 21 and over who are residents of the United States have the right to vote. Any state preventing these rights will lose electors in the Electoral College.

• The 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, more directly addressed race and a citizen’s former status as a slave. “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

• The 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920 — when the Tennessee General Assembly voted in favor on August 18, becoming the 36th of the 36 states needed for ratification — gave women over 21 years of age the right to vote. (We’ll detail Tennessee’s pivotal role in women winning the right to vote in an upcoming “Civics 101” column.)

• The 24th Amendment, ratified in 1964, outlawed “poll taxes,” which were used in some states to make it harder for poor people to vote.

• In 1965, the Voting Rights Act was signed by President Lyndon Johnson to enforce the 15th Amendment by explicitly stating it is against federal law to inhibit voting through such obstacles as literacy tests or complicated ballot instructions.

• The 26th Amendment, ratified in 1971, lowered the voting age to 18 — the minimum age as the draft.

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