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All The Reasons Why People Have Been Restricted From Voting In The US

The history of the United States is loaded with questions of what constitutes American citizenship and who has the right to vote in US elections. Native Americans born on US soil were not considered citizens until 1924, and could not vote in all 50 states until the 1960s. Women were also barred from voting for centuries, up until the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.

While these voter regulations were tied to potentially earnest presuppositions about groups of people, others are more subtle and targeted, such as gerrymandering and grandfather loopholes. In some instances, both state and federal usage of state-of-emergency rules led to the physical enforcement of virtual disenfranchisement, as was the case with the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. 

While some may believe the right to vote is universal in contemporary society, the roots of voting restrictions from the country's past still addle large sects of the present day population.

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  • Lack of Full Citizen Status Disenfranchised Native Americans From Voting Until The 20th Century
    Photo: National Photo Company Collection / Wikimedia Commons

    Lack of Full Citizen Status Disenfranchised Native Americans From Voting Until The 20th Century

    In the nascent years of the US government, its relationship with Native Americans was formed on the foundation of being independent countries. From that launching point, it was assumed (and in some cases highlighted) Native Americans were not citizens and thus could not vote.

    However, as the 19th century saw the expansion of US territory into Native Americans’ lands and the sequestering of tribes to be shepherded West via mass, government-run forced migrations (such as the Trail of Tears), Native Americans began to express their need to have a say in their country.

    Three years after the Supreme Court formally declared Native Americans were not citizens, the Dawes Act of 1887 provided a path to citizenship (as long Native Americans cut ties with their heritage and fully embraced assimilation into Anglo-American culture).

    Following World War I, Native American veterans who served honorably were granted citizenship. Then came the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, which granted citizenship - and presumably the right to vote - to any Native Americans born in the US, but the effects of this were blunted by individual state legislation that increased the difficulty of the registration.

    What followed was a series of flip flops by the federal government on how it referred to Native Americans on reservations and citizens, capped by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (a few years after Native Americans gained the right to vote in all 50 states) and bolstered by ensuing amendments.

    As recently as 2016, the San Juan County Navajo community in Utah won a lawsuit against the local government after decades of racial gerrymandering. In this case, Anglo residents comprised less than half of the county's total population, but strategic district mapping allowed them to have control over county resources. Because of this, the Navajo people were repeatedly denied access to public goods such as ambulances and education funding. 

  • Religious Tests In The American Colonies Prevented Catholics And Jews From Voting
    Photo: Constitutional Convetion / Wikimedia Commons

    Religious Tests In The American Colonies Prevented Catholics And Jews From Voting

    Before the penning of the Constitution, religious tests were rampant in the American Colonies, often restricting the right to vote to Protestants and/or Presbyterians. Jews and Catholics were among the most restricted, as both were explicitly barred from casting ballots in several colonies. Another way to limit the impact of certain religious groups in the colonies was to bar them holding public office, as was the case for atheists, Jews, and Roman Catholics in New Hampshire, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Vermont.

    Although the Framers included the Article VI ban stating “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States,” this was interpreted to extend only to the federal government, leaving individual states the right to employ religious tests. Initially all the states enforced religious tests and limited public offices to Christians in most cases, though some states limited offices to Protestants.

    It wasn’t until Torcaso v. Watkins (1961) that the Supreme Court struck down the requirement of any sort of religious test in order to hold any public office. That case made it so not even a declaration of a “belief in God,” as was then required by the Maryland Constitution, could be deemed a necessary requirement for serving, as it violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

  • Gov. Elbridge Gerry Diluted The Federalists’ Power And Gave Birth To Gerrymandering
    Photo: Elkanah Tisdale (1771-1835) (often falsely attributed to Gilbert Stuart) / Wikimedia Commons

    Gov. Elbridge Gerry Diluted The Federalists’ Power And Gave Birth To Gerrymandering

    On February 11, 1812, Massachusetts Republican Governor Elbridge Gerry signed a bill to redraw voting lines to restrict Federalists' voting power. The result was a map filled with odd district shapes, particularly Gerry’s own district of Essex, which resembled a salamander. Reportedly, a Boston Gazette editor engineered the portmanteau “Gerrymander” (Gerry + salamander), a term that stuck around to describe the manipulation of redistricting for political gain.

    In Gerry’s case, the Republican party, which was highly critical of President James Madison’s foreign policy, was able to easily capture a majority with 29 seats against the Federalists’ 11. Somewhat ironically, he lost his own bid to retain his seat in the 1812 election, which freed him to become Madison’s vice president later that year.

    Although Gerry is best-remembered for being the namesake of this political maneuver, he had serious reservations about manipulating district lines in such a way. Those reservations have been validated by the blatant use of gerrymandering throughout US history, time and time again diluting the impact of minority populations across the country.

  • Disenfranchisement Of Non-Landowners Sparked The Dorr War In Rhode Island
    Photo: Internet Archives Book Images / Wikimedia Commons

    Disenfranchisement Of Non-Landowners Sparked The Dorr War In Rhode Island

    Operating under a 1663 charter, the government of 1830s Rhode Island limited the vote to landowning males and their eldest sons, a restriction that was grossly out of step with the burgeoning industrial populations in cities like Providence. This left 11,239 of 26,000 adult males in the state qualified to vote by 1841.

    Fed up with his lack of a voice in the government, attorney Thomas Dorr organized an extra-legal convention to draft a new state constitution and abolish all voting restrictions. Rhode Island’s governor was forced to call in the state’s militia and declare a state of emergency to squash the insurrection. After a failed attempt to capture the state arsenal in Providence, authorities arrested Dorr and sentenced him to life imprisonment at hard labor on counts of high treason.

    However, because Dorr carried serious clout with the irate population who supported his beliefs, the governor ended up commuting the attorney's sentence and adopting a new constitution, albeit one that established “$134 freehold suffrage qualification for naturalized citizens” and a strict anti-Irish Catholic restriction (in place until 1888).

  • Minor v. Happersett (1875) Declared Women, Although Full Citizens, Could Be Restricted From Voting
    Photo: Scholten, J. A. (John A.), 1829-1886 , photographer Buttre; John Chester, 1821-1893, engraver / Wikimedia Commons

    Minor v. Happersett (1875) Declared Women, Although Full Citizens, Could Be Restricted From Voting

    In 1872, St. Louis’s Sixth District Registrar Reese Happersett denied Virginia Minor voter registration on the basis that she was a woman. Represented by her husband (since married women could not sue in Missouri), she brought suit in a civil action arguing the Fourteenth Amendment made women full citizens and thus enfranchised them.

    However, the Supreme Court deflected the attempt by claiming “the Constitution of the United States does not confer the right of suffrage upon anyone” on the grounds that suffrage is in no way necessitated by citizenship. This left it up to the states to doll out restrictions on voting rights as they saw fit; more often than not they chose to deny women suffrage.

    After the court’s decision, the suffrage movement turned to effect changes at the state level and was largely successful in the West, where territories such as Wyoming and Utah already allowed women to vote. All said and done, only nine states gave women voting rights before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.

  • The 1882 The Chinese Exclusion Act Barred Chinese Immigrants From US Citizenship
    Photo: L.M. Glackens / Wikimedia Commons

    The 1882 The Chinese Exclusion Act Barred Chinese Immigrants From US Citizenship

    The mid-19th century saw an influx of Chinese immigrants to the American West Coast. They sought to earn higher wages than what was available in their homeland and to pay remittances to family members back in China, but most were also working to pay the hefty cost imposed on them by the people who secured immigrants’ passage.

    Thus, Chinese immigrants took whatever work (usually on railroads, farms and in factories) they could at whatever price, often undercutting the wages whites typically had access to. From this rose a massive anti-Chinese sentiment that contrived discriminatory stereotypes and local legislation, all of which culminated in the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

    In addition to prohibiting Chinese immigration for decades (after requiring extensions), this act barred the naturalization of Chinese resident aliens, making it impossible for them to vote. Between the act’s passage and its full repeal (in 1943), people of Chinese descent faced tougher restrictions, such as having to register as a resident and acquire certification. If they didn't jump through these hoops, Chinese residents faced immediate deportation.

    Restrictions such as these often hindered their ability to orchestrate movements and fight for their voting rights, as they had to first fight for a basic level of citizenship.