Who Can Vote in the U.S?

Election laws in the U.S. date all the way back to the birth of our country in 1776. Throughout history, voting laws have changed quite a bit. So, are there any caveats to voting and who can vote? Some exist, but as long as you meet the requirements for your state, you can vote. Keep reading to learn about the history of voting in the U.S., who can vote, and voter registration.

General Voting Requirements

All U.S. citizens must meet these general requirements in order to vote in federal elections. Non-U.S. citizens (foreign-born individuals) are not able to vote in the U.S. in any type of election.

General requirements for U.S. citizens for federal elections include:

  • Voter must be age 18 or older on the day of the election
  • Voter must register to vote (all states except North Dakota)
  • Voter must meet their state's residency requirements

If you are homeless or do not have a permanent residence, you may still be able to meet the general residency requirement for your state.

History of Voting Rights in the U.S.

Voting was originally controlled entirely by each state. To some extent, each state still has control over voting because state rules still exist. At the time of the U.S. Constitution's inception back in 1776, only white males over the age of 21 were allowed to vote (and you had to own land). Here's a look at what's changed in the U.S. throughout the years:

The U.S. Constitution is ratified and states that only white men who own land and are over the age of 21 can vote.
The 14th Amendment is passed. All white men born in the U.S. and those who have gone through naturalization are granted citizenship rights. This includes the right to vote.
The 15th Amendment is passed and people of color are granted the right to vote. However, there are loopholes such as literacy tests, polling taxes, and more that heavily prevent men of color from voting. Native Americans and women are still denied the right to vote at this time.
The 19th Amendment is passed. Women in the U.S. who are citizens are given the right to vote.
Poll taxes are eliminated, granting men and women who are citizens and over the age of 21 the right to vote.
The voting age in the U.S. is lowered to 18 years of age.

Can I Vote If I'm a Convicted Felon?

In some states, yes. Each state determines whether an individual is disenfranchised (deprived of the right to vote) after serving time. In most states, felons cannot vote if they are:

  • In jail or prison
  • Under the authority of the Department of Corrections (DOC)
  • Disqualified due to a state or federal court order

In Maine and Virginia, convicted felons can vote even if they are incarcerated. In some states, individuals convicted of felonies can restore their right to vote after they are done serving time. For example, in Washington state, an individual must register to vote (or re-register) after serving time in jail, prison, or with the DOC. Remember: The only state that does not require voter registration is North Dakota. 

Visit our page on felon voting laws by state to learn more about whether or not convicted felons can vote in your state.

Immigrants and Voting in the U.S.

All natural-born citizens and those who have gone through naturalization can vote in U.S. federal elections. This means that only immigrants who have gone through naturalization receive the right to vote.

What is naturalization? Naturalization is a process that grants citizenship to people born outside the U.S. Some of the many requirements for naturalization include:

  • Must be 18 years or older
  • Must be a permanent resident for at least 5 years (or have a Green Card)
  • Be able to read, write and speak basic English

Do I Need to Register to Vote?

Elections differ state-by-state, but the basic voting process itself is generally the same throughout the U.S. In most states, you're assigned a voting location and you can participate in the election if you're registered to vote. Every state except North Dakota requires individuals to register to vote. The deadlines to register are different for every state and can be as far out as a month before elections. Check with your state to see when your deadline is.

Every state has absentee ballots, which allow a person to vote ahead of time if they are unable to vote in-person on election day.

Have Questions About Voting? Try Contacting a Lawyer.

Voter rules and laws are complex. If you have questions about your right to vote, it could be helpful to talk with an attorney.

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