The subject of electoral law is one of the most important characteristics of US constitutional law. Public relations established by voting rights serve to protect the right of citizens to elect and be elected to state and local governmental bodies. Over history, the right to vote in the US has undergone significant changes starting as a privilege granted to few to embracing the whole adult population of the country. This paper hypothesizes that the US voting right has evolved in a democratic and closer-to-people way and remains one of the best electoral practices across the globe.
The right to vote is a set of constitutional and legal norms that regulate the procedure for organizing and holding elections at state and local levels. The history of voting right in the USA starts with the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on the fourth of July, 1776. Proclaiming basic human rights such as the right to life, liberty and happiness, the Declaration states that the government “deriv[es] [its] just powers from the consent of the governed” (Declaration of Independence: A Transcription, 1776, para. 2). Thus, the Declaration acknowledges the people to be a sole and unquestioned source of power within the country, a power able to “to alter or to abolish [old government], and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles […], as to [people] shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness” (Declaration of Independence: A Transcription, para. 2). Though at those time ‘the people’ were understood as a dominant male majority, the Declaration became the first step towards free and fair elections within a country.
The second major milestone in granting people the right to vote was the establishment of the Electoral College in 1787. The College was the result of fierce debates among the Framers as to the process through which the president should be elected. Since the Framers strove to keep the division of powers, it was agreed upon that the President should not be elected directly by Congress. While the idea of the popular vote was seen as too complex to be brought about across the whole country, given its size and lack of communications, the Electoral College was seen to as its worthy alternative. Thus, the establishment of the Electoral College allowed to reach “a compromise between the large states and the small states” and “between the slave states and the free states” that resulted in a bicameral legislature (We still need to abolish the Electoral College, para. 12). The further adoption of the principle that voters could be elected on the popular vote basis provided real leverage for particular groups of people to influence the outcome of presidential elections.
It is worth noting that at the moment of the adoption of the Constitution, voting rights were restricted to white males who had a certain amount of property in their possession. With the development of the system of universal suffrage, the necessary amount of property was lowered so that more people got voting right. The practice of mass exclusion of Afro-Americans from participation in elections continued until the 50s of the 20th century. It was achieved both by legal restrictions, operating mainly in the southern states, and by terrorist measures – Lynch courts, intimidation of those Afro-American citizens who decided to vote.
The mass protest movement of Afro-Americans against racial discrimination led to the adoption in 1957 of the Civil Rights Act, supplemented in 1960, which provided some legal guarantees to ensure the voting rights of this group. To this end, a civil rights commission was created, whose competence included investigating cases of deprivation of US citizens of the right to vote on the basis of skin color, race, religion, or national origin. Judicial responsibility for discriminatory electoral practices was also established.
The weak effectiveness of judicial guarantees of the electoral rights of Afro-Americans led to the radicalization of the demands of the growing Afro-American protest movement of the late 50s and early 60s of the 20th century. Thus, Afro-American demands for the abolition of racial segregation transformed into exigency for political equality and the resolution of socio-economic problems. Prompted by the powerful Afro-American protest, the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, which formally eliminated discrimination against Afro-Americans in all spheres of economic and political life.
In 1965, as a radical measure, the Voting Rights Act was adopted. This Act stated that the use of literacy tests for filtering voters could be suspended in any state if the use of these tests led to the restriction of citizens’ voting rights. The Act says, “No voting qualification or prerequisite to voting […] shall be imposed or applied by any State or political subdivision to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color” (Voting Rights Act, sec. 2). The Federal Government was allowed to send its registrars to the states and electoral districts to correct electoral lists compiled in violation of the law. Thus, the 1965 Act initiated the mass registration of Afro-Americans as voters and served to increase their political consciousness. Moreover, “the disenfranchisement rate dropped between 1960 and 1976” as people belonging to minority groups began to exercise their voting rights (Chung, 2021, para. 5). With further development of civil liberties.
The US voting rights represent the main form of democracy and the will of the people. Through elections, US citizens gain access to the legislature, empowering their representatives with opportunities to improve people’s lives. The way American electoral rights have evolved over centuries reflects the country’s high level of political freedoms, the legitimacy of the government, and a high level of democratization and civil liberties.
Martin Luther King Versus Frederick Douglass: Theories and Practices
In the history of American voting rights, two figures stand apart from all advocates of freedom of their courage, honesty, and burning desire to fight for a better life for their country. These are Martin Luther King and Frederick Douglass, whose contribution to enfranchising Afro-Americans and minority groups can hardly be overestimated. Though King and Douglass adhered to different theories and practices of fighting against discrimination, the results of their struggle allowed millions of Americans to get voting rights and take an active part in the political life of the country. This paper hypothesizes that King and Douglass are united by their vision of a free and democratic society that they wanted to build. Their great contribution to enfranchising many Afro-American citizens and granting them political rights has remained unsurpassed till nowadays.
M. L. King is one of the most famous preachers of all time and his famous speech “I have a dream” up till now resonates in every heart that beats in unison with civil rights and freedom. Taking the path of a clergyman, King became the leader of the civil rights movement of Afro-American groups for their rights. King’s dominant idea was that fighting against racism and prejudices was possible only through peaceful means. Initiating the Afro-American protest movement, Kind set the goal of granting civil rights to Afro-American groups who were denied many liberties and freedoms.
The central concept of this movement was built around the use of nonviolent tactics. Being imprisoned many times, King did not abandon the idea of a fight, which culminated in the march to Washington. King also played a key role in the marches from Selma to Montgomery. These marches resulted in the adoption by the US Congress of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which provided voting rights to millions of black citizens who had actually been deprived of political voice before. The Act enfranchised many Afro-Americans and “by the end of 1965, a quarter of a million new Black voters had been registered, one-third by federal examiners” (Voting Rights Act, para. 5). The Voting Rights Act of 1965 lifted barriers to voting that had existed and, in essence, granted political power to underprivileged groups.
Douglass was a key figure in the abolitionist movement, who put all his courage, perseverance, extraordinary talent as a publicist, and rich life experience into the struggle for the complete elimination of slavery and its consequences. He strove to ensure that the fact that “some gave a little blood, and others gave their very lives for voting rights” was acknowledged in the highest echelons of power, and legal actions were taken to ensure voting rights for minority groups (Collins, 2020, para. 6). Douglass developed a program to grant the black population of the country political and civil rights, and above all the right to vote and be elected along with white Americans. He consistently fought for the implementation of this program after the abolition of slavery.
Another practice of fighting for voting rights for the Afro-American population was a newspaper that Douglass initiated as a source of relevant information for Afro-Americans. Douglass believed that a newspaper created by people of his race would educate Afro-Americans, intensify their struggle, and influence public consciousness more effectively than the publications of white abolitionists. In addition, he considered the intellectual, creative activity of Afro-American editors and authors to be an important argument in the criticism of racism that indicated that African Americans had no fewer abilities than whites. In his publications, Douglass aimed to attack slavery in all its manifestations, promote emancipation, and foster the moral and intellectual enlightenment of Afro-Americans.
Journalistic activity, which led to an extensive rapprochement with his people, required Douglas to independently rethink the history of the fight against slavery, the entire American history, political institutions, and the lessons of world history. Douglas came to the conclusion that the Constitution of the United States was anti–slavery and, therefore, slavery was a lawless system of violence. Douglass found inspiration for his work in the Declaration of Independence which stated “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” (Declaration of Independence, para. 2). Moreover, he believed that it was a duty of every American citizen to use political means to eliminate slavery. Douglas began to consider active participation in election campaigns and voting as the most important political means of the fight. In his newspaper, Douglas showed the disastrous impact of slavery on politics, upbringing, education, religion, and the spiritual health of the entire nation. He connected the problem of slavery with the problems of war and peace, with the destiny of the country, future generations, and world history.
Both Martin Luther King and Frederick Douglass saw peaceful means as the main methods of fighting against slavery, segregation, and racism. King preferred to fight for voting rights by initiating meetings and demonstrations; Douglass turned to journalism to educate the Afro-American population about their rights. Both activists saw their aims in enfranchising large groups of Afro-American population and minority groups, thus enhancing their participation in the country’s political life.
Chung, Jean (2021). Voting Rights in the Era of Mass Incarceration: A Primer. The Sentencing Project.
Collins, Sean. (2020). “Rep. John Lewis’s voting rights legacy is in danger”. Vox.
Declaration of Independence: A Transcription (1776). National Archives.
Keyssar, Alexandr. (2020) We still need to abolish the Electoral College. Jacobin.
Voting Rights Act (1965). National Archives.