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Elections and Voting Rights

Overview

Federal elections and voting rights have changed since the signing of the Constitution in 1787. Below are a timeline of select historic documents to show these changes, and a section on U.S. Government information about former congressional members, past presidents, and analyses of the Constitution.

President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act as Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights leaders look on

Photograph of President Lyndon B. Johnson Signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (Source: National Archives and Records Administration)

Timeline of Historical Documents on Federal Elections and Voting Rights

Timeline of Historical Documents on Federal Elections and Voting Rights

When the Constitution was adopted, voting rights were decided by the states, which routinely permitted only white men who owned property to vote.^ This gallery highlights some historic documents since 1787 that have expanded voting rights. Below is the timeline of featured documents. Click on the side arrows in this box to read more about them. 

^Library of Congress

September 17, 1787 | Article I Section 4 Clause 1 of the U.S. Constitution

"The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of chusing [sic] Senators."

 

This clause of the Constitution gives state legislatures the authority to oversee congressional elections; however, the U.S. Congress regulates the election process and can override state election laws.^ 

June 25, 1842 | Apportionment Act of 1842

"An Act for the apportionment of Representatives among the several States according to the sixth census."

 

This is the first time that the U.S. Congress starts standardizing congressional districts and reapportioning the House membership based on the decennial census rather than continually increasing the number of seats. The immediate result decreased the number of seats from 242 to 223 seats.^

May 31, 1870 | Civil Rights Act of 1870

"An Act to enforce the Right of Citizens of the United States to vote in the several States of this Union, and for other Purposes."

 

The purpose of this law was to authorize the President to "counteract such use of violence and intimidation" against former slaves after the passage of the 15th Amendment.^ It is also known as the Enforcement Act of 1870 or the First Ku Klux Klan Act

June 11, 1929 | Permanent Apportionment Act of 1929

"To provide for the fifteenth and subsequent decennial censuses and to provide for apportionment of Representatives in Congress."

 

This act, signed by President Herbert Hoover, placed a permanent cap of 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, and there is a reapportionment of the seats after every decennial census.^

September 9, 1957 | Civil Rights Act of 1957

"To provide means of further securing and protecting the civil rights of persons within the jurisdiction of the United States."

 

Signed into law by President Dwight Eisenhower, this act is the "first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction."^ The legislation, however, was a compromised, "watered-down" measure passed by the U.S. Congress.* 

May 6, 1960 | Civil Rights Act of 1960

"To enforce constitutional rights... Whoever, by threats or force, willfully prevents, obstructs, impedes, or interferes with, or willfully attempts to prevent, obstruct, impede, or interfere with, the due exercise of rights or the performance of duties under any order, judgment, or decree of a court of the United States, shall be fined not more than $1,000 or imprisoned not more than one year, or both."

 

This act amended the Civil Rights Act of 1957, including making it a crime "to obstruct rights or duties under Federal court orders" to enforce voting rights of citizens.

July 2, 1964 | Civil Rights Act of 1964

"To enforce the constitutional right to vote, to confer jurisdiction upon the district courts of the United States to provide injunctive relief against discrimination in public accommodations, to authorize the Attorney General to institute suites to protect constitutional rights in public facilities and public education, to extend the Commission on Civil Rights, to prevent discrimination in federally assisted programs, to establish a Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity, and for other purposes."

 

President Lyndon Johnson signs this act into law, which included outlawing discrimination to public accommodations, public facilities, public education, and federally assisted programs. 

August 6, 1965 | Voting Rights Act of 1965

"To enforce the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and for other purposes... No voting qualifications or prerequisite to voting, or standing, practice, or procedure 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."

 

This act, signed by President Lyndon Johnson, outlawed discriminatory voting practices by expanding the 15th Amendment.

August 28, 1986 | Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act of 1986

"To consolidate and improve provisions of law relating to absentee registration and voting in elections for Federal office by members of uniformed services and persons who reside overseas."

 

President Ronald Reagan signs UOCAVA into law, which requires states to permit and process the absentee voting of members of uniformed services and overseas U.S. citizens residents in special, general, primary, and runoff elections for Federal offices.

May 20, 1993 | The National Voter Registration Act of 1993

"To establish national voter registration procedures for Federal elections, and for other purposes."

 

Signed by President Bill Clinton, this act requires states to permit voter registration at state motor vehicle agencies, offer mail-in opportunities, and maintain current and accurate voter registration lists. When it was enacted, the District of Columbia and six states (Idaho, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming) were exempt because they either had "no voter-registration requirements or had election-day voter registration at the polling places."^

October 29, 2002 | Help America Vote Act of 2002

"To establish a program to provide funds to States to replace punch card voting systems, to establish the Election Assistance Commission to assist in the administration of Federal elections and to otherwise provide assistance with the administration of certain Federal election laws and programs, to establish minimum election administration standards for States and units of local government with responsibility for the administration of Federal elections, and for other purposes."

 

Signed by President George W. Bush, this act codified Chapter 209 of Title 52 of the U.S. Code, which concerns improving election administration.

October 28, 2009 | Military and Overseas Voting Empowerment Act of 2009

"Each State shall include a means of electronic communication so designated with all informational and instructional materials that accompany balloting materials sent by the State to absent uniformed services voters and overseas voters."

 

President Barack Obama signs this act in law, which expanded UOCAVA by providing "greater protections for service members, their families, and other overseas citizens."^ Under Subtitle H—Military Voting of Public Law No. 111–84, this expansion included electronic communication about absentee voting and a required minimum of 45 days to transmit absentee ballots to applicable voters.

January 21, 2010 | Ruling on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission

"It is only because the majority rejects Citizens United’s statutory claim that it proceeds to consider the group’s various constitutional arguments, beginning with its narrowest claim (that Hillary is not the functional equivalent of express advocacy) and proceeding to its broadest claim (that Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, 494 U. S. 652 (1990) should be overruled)... Congress may not prohibit political speech, even if the speaker is a corporation or union. What makes this case difficult is the need to confront our prior decision in Austin."

 

The Supreme Court ruled 5-to-4 that Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission violated the right of free speech under the First Amendment.

Historical Information and Resources on Former Congressional Members, Past Presidents, and Analyses of the Constitution

Many resources exist when conducting research on former congressional members, past presidents, and analyses of the Constitution. Click on the tabs of this box to learn more about each of these topics. The featured U.S. Government resources come from the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, Library of Congress, National Archives & Records Administration, National Park Service, U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Senate, and the White House.

Screenshot of website, "American Presidents: List of Sites" website Screenshot of website, "Biographical Directory of the United States Congress" website Screenshot of website, "Congressional Collections" website Screenshot of "Past Inaugural Ceremonies" website Screenshot of website, "Presidents, Vice Presidents, & Coinciding Sessions of Congress" website
Screenshot of website, "Presidents" website Screenshot of website, "Classroom Materials: The Constitution" website Screenshot of website, "Chronological List of Presidents, First Ladies, and Vice Presidents of the United States" website Screenshot of website, "The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858" website Screenshot of website, "Constitution Annotated" website
Former Congressional Members
Screenshot of website, "Biographical Directory of the United States Congress" website

Biographical Directory of the United States Congress

Congress.gov 

  • The online directory contains brief biographies of current and past members of the U.S. Congress, including search parameters by congressional session, party affiliation, state/territory, and position.
Screenshot of website, "Congressional Collections" website

Congressional Collections

National Archives & Records Administration (NARA)

  • Maintained by NARA's Center for Legislative Archives, this index is an extensive online guide on the official records of the U.S. Congress. The index lists where to locate congressional collections in each state.
Screenshot of website, "The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858" website

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858

National Park Service 

  • Visit the seven Illinois locations and read the transcripts of the seven Senatorial debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas that occurred in 1858. 
Screenshot of website, "Living Former Senators (Alphabetical)" website

Living Former Senators (Alphabetical)

U.S. Senate

  • This is an online directory of living former senators of the U.S. Congress. Information about each individual includes a brief biography, when they served in the U.S. Senate, their bibliography, and the research collections. 
Screenshot of website, "Researching Former Members of Congress" website

Researching Former Members of Congress

U.S. House of Representatives

  • This online resource provides ideas for how to research on former House Representatives of the U.S. Congress, from their legislative records to their membership to organizations and caucuses.
Past Presidents
Screenshot of website, "American Presidents: List of Sites" website

American Presidents: List of Sites

National Park Service

  • If interested in visiting places associated with past presidents, check out the list of NPS sites. Places include Montpelier in Montpelier Station, Virginia; Franklin Pierce Homestead in Hillsborough, New Hampshire; William McKinley Tomb in Canton, Ohio; John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site in Brookline, Massachusetts; and Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home in Dixon, Illinois.
Screenshot of website, "Chronological List of Presidents, First Ladies, and Vice Presidents of the United States" website

Chronological List of Presidents, First Ladies, and Vice Presidents of the United States

Library of Congress

  • This online guide from the Library of Congress not only includes a chronology of past and current presidents, first ladies, and vice presidents, but also drawings or photographs of them.
Screenshot of "Past Inaugural Ceremonies" website

Past Inaugural Ceremonies

Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies (JCCIC)

  • The JCCIC is "responsible for the planning and execution of the Inaugural Ceremonies of the President-elect and Vice President-elect of the United States at the Capitol." Check out this online resource that has information of presidential inaugurations from George Washington to Joseph R. Biden, Jr.    
Screenshot of website, "Presidential Libraries" website

Presidential Libraries

National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)

  • To learn more about presidential libraries and museums, check out NARA's online resource. Information includes how to visit the places, how to research presidential documents, and more!
Screenshot of website, "Presidents" website

Presidents

The White House

  • This online guide maintained by The White House has brief biographies of past and current presidents, from George Washington to Joseph R. Biden, Jr.
Screenshot of website, "Presidents, Vice Presidents, & Coinciding Sessions of Congress" website

Presidents, Vice Presidents, & Coinciding Sessions of Congress

U.S. House of Representatives

  • This online guide provides a brief overview about the coinciding sessions of the U.S. Congress during a president's term. The table includes the president, vice president, the years of each presidency, and which session(s) of Congress coincided.
Analyses of the Constitution
Screenshot of website, "Classroom Materials: The Constitution" website

Classroom Materials: The Constitution

Library of Congress

  • As an online teacher's guide, the Library of Congress provides various primary-source materials related to the Constitution, including digitized handwritten notes by Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington.
Screenshot of website, "Constitution Annotated" website

Constitution Annotated

Congress.gov 

  • In this online resource, each section of the Constitution with detailed explanation including an overview, historical background, and legal impacts.
Screenshot of website, "The Constitution of the United States" website

The Constitution of the United States

National Archives and Records Administration 

  • This online resources provides a comprehensive overview about the Constitution, including digital scans of founding document, annotated notes, and historical context.