Skip to main content
Find a Lawyer
Please enter a legal issue and/or a location
Begin typing to search, use arrow keys to navigate, use enter to select

Voting Rights

Voting rights lie at the core of any thriving democracy. These rights are vital in shaping the future of a nation.

In the United States, the right to vote is a fundamental civil right protected by various laws and statutes. Civil liberties, such as the right to vote, means you have the right to be free from unequal treatment based on specific protected characteristics.

To vote in a presidential election, you must be:

  • 18 years old
  • A United States citizen

Each state has its own requirements. Article I, Section 4 of the Constitution says: "Congress may at any time by law make or alter such regulations" governing elections.

As the country continues to evolve, so do the challenges and issues surrounding voting rights. This article aims to provide an overview of:

  • Voting protections under the law
  • Discrimination in voting

This article will discuss the legal safeguards to ensure that every eligible citizen can take part in the democratic process.

Constitutional Amendments

The framework of voting rights has evolved significantly since the writing of the United States Constitution. Initially, the founders didn't universally grant the right to vote.

Over time, constitutional amendments expanded suffrage to various minority groups. The 15th Amendment is one example. Ratified in 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment prohibits denial of voting rights based on race or color.

The 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920, ensures the right to vote regardless of gender. In 1971, the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18, recognizing the rights of young adults.

Discriminatory Voting Practices and the Voting Rights Act of 1965

The enactment of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 was a monumental response to pervasive racial discrimination in voting. After the Civil War, many states tried to stop African Americans from voting by implementing obstacles like literacy tests, poll taxes, and grandfather clauses.

Literacy Tests

Some districts in the southern states required literacy tests as a prerequisite for voter registration. They were intentionally crafted to be extremely challenging and unfair. The questions on these tests often required a high level of education. This level of knowledge exceeded what's reasonably expected for an average voter. Plus, white officials graded the tests. This opened the door for biased interpretation and arbitrary rejection of answers.

Grandfather Clauses

Grandfather clauses allowed people to vote only if their ancestors had voted before a specific date. This disproportionately affected African Americans during the Jim Crow era. Even though they were free, many people couldn't vote because their ancestors were enslaved.

Poll Taxes

Poll taxes were fees imposed on people as a prerequisite for voting. These taxes disproportionately targeted African Americans and other minority groups who couldn't afford to pay.

Many states implemented poll taxes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including:

  • Alabama
  • Georgia
  • Mississippi
  • South Carolina
  • Texas
  • Virginia

Several northern and western states, including California, New Hampshire, and Vermont, also used poll taxes.

In 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the poll tax was unconstitutional in Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections. Plaintiff Annie E. Harper challenged the constitutionality of Virginia's poll tax. She argued that it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Court held that the imposition of a poll tax did infringe on the fundamental right to vote. The ruling played a crucial role in the broader movement toward eliminating barriers to voting and promoting greater inclusivity in the electoral process.

The Voting Rights Act

Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to protect Black voters and others who may face discrimination based on their race.

Section 2 of the VRA prohibits any voting practice that discriminates on the basis of race, color, or language minority status.

Section 5 requires certain jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory voting practices to seek federal approval before making any voting changes. This process is "preclearance."

The Supreme Court, in Shelby County v. Holder (2013), nullified a key provision of Section 5. But the VRA remains a crucial tool in combating voting discrimination.

The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA)

According to the Department of Justice, the NVRA, enacted in 1993, addresses barriers to voter registration. It requires states to offer voter registration opportunities at various federal government offices, like the Department of Motor Vehicles and public assistance agencies. This "Motor Voter" law aims to simplify the registration process and increase the accessibility of voter registration to all eligible citizens.

The Help America Vote Act (HAVA)

Congress enacted the HAVA in 2002 in response to issues arising from the 2000 presidential election. HAVA addresses election administration and voting systems. It establishes the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) to provide guidance and support to state and local election officials with:

  • Upgrading voting systems
  • Ensuring accessibility for people with disabilities
  • Improving the administration of federal elections

State-Level Voting Laws

Besides federal laws, states have their own voting regulations. These can vary widely, influencing aspects such as early voting, mail-in voting, and voter identification requirements. Understanding state-specific voting laws is essential for voters to navigate the voting process.

Use the map on our Voting Laws and Resources page to learn more about your state's voting laws.

Modern Voting Obstacles

Discrimination can manifest in various forms, often targeting specific groups and undermining the principles of equality and inclusivity. Below are a few examples of modern discriminatory voting practices.

Voter Suppression

Discriminatory practices, historically rooted in voter suppression, persist today. These tactics deter or prevent certain groups from exercising their right to vote.

Examples include restrictive voter ID laws, reduced polling places in minority neighborhoods, and limitations on early voting.


The manipulation of electoral district boundaries, known as gerrymandering, can disproportionately affect certain communities. Gerrymandering can take the form of dividing communities or creating oddly shaped districts. This manipulation often aims to give one political party or group an advantage.

Through the strategic redrawing of district lines during the redistricting process, politicians may dilute the voting power of specific racial or ethnic groups.

In Shaw v. Reno, the U.S. Supreme Court said that while political gerrymandering is allowed, courts can overturn district maps that show racial gerrymandering.

Socioeconomic Disparities

Economic disparities can create obstacles for specific demographics. For example, people facing financial challenges may struggle to get the necessary identification documents or take time off work to vote, disproportionately affecting marginalized communities.

Voter Intimidation

Acts of voter intimidation, whether subtle or overt, can deter people from casting their ballots. Voter intimidation includes things like:

  • Aggressive poll watching
  • Spreading false information about voting eligibility
  • Creating an atmosphere of fear at polling places

Efforts to end these barriers contribute to protecting and enhancing voting rights for all citizens.

Legal Challenges and Court Decisions

Voting rights often become the subject of legal battles, with court decisions shaping the landscape of electoral laws. Staying informed about legal challenges and Supreme Court decisions can give you insight into the ongoing struggle to protect and expand voting rights.

As voters, it is crucial to be well-versed in the array of legal protections that underpin the right to vote. Understanding these laws empowers us to recognize potential threats to voting rights. This also helps set the stage for more informed and active participation in the electoral process. Contact a civil rights lawyer if someone has infringed on your right to vote.

To learn more about discrimination in voting and your civil rights when voting, see the links below:

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

Or contact an attorney near you:
Was this helpful?

Copied to clipboard

Find a Lawyer

More Options