Ensuring Access to the Ballot Box: Voting Rights in the United States

By Yang, Elizabeth M.; Gaines, Kristi | Social Education, September 2008 | Go to article overview

Ensuring Access to the Ballot Box: Voting Rights in the United States


Yang, Elizabeth M., Gaines, Kristi, Social Education


The process of voting is a fundamental right and privilege of any democracy. In fact, Merriam-Webster defines the word democracy as "a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections." The history of voting rights in the United States has been a long and evolving process that continues to this day.

Many people would probably be amazed to know that the Constitution, as written by the founders of our nation in 1787, only allowed the states to bestow the right to vote on white males, over the age of 21, who either owned property or paid poll taxes. (1) The franchise of voting was gradually expanded over the course of the next 200 years, through amendments to the Constitution and by enactment of federal legislation.

The prospect of voting rights today is certainly brighter and more inclusive than it was at the founding of our nation. There is, however, a need for continued vigilance and study as changes in our society and technology affect our electoral process. Modern times require a look at issues that were not contemplated by our founding fathers or perhaps even by the authors of major twentieth-century voting rights legislation, including the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. A closer look at some current issues related to voting rights--voter identification laws, felon disenfranchisement, and "English only" laws--suggests how voting rights can be adversely affected by the most seemingly ordinary requirements.

Voter Identification Laws

On its face, the concept of presenting voter identification at the polls is not a bad one. It serves to confirm the identity of the voter and can provide proof of residency, which is often a requirement of voting. So, one might ask, what is the harm? Everyone has a driver's license, right? Actually, the simple answer is no. Not everyone has a form of government-issued identification. The answer becomes even more complicated when a breakdown of individuals without identification, or the means to obtain it, is revealed to be generally comprised of the elderly, minorities, the poor, and the homeless.

This tension between the legitimate government interest to prevent voter fraud and the need to protect the more vulnerable portions of our population is being played out in Congress and in our courts today. To date, although there have been attempts to federally legislate a government-issued photo identification as a requirement to voting in federal elections, the only requirement that has passed is a part of the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA). HAVA requires first time voters who register by mail without providing a form of identification to present some form of identification upon arriving at the polls to vote. (2)

Several states have gone beyond HAVA and require that all voters present some form of identification at the polls. The requirement for the type of identification varies. Indiana is one of the most restrictive, requiring government-issued photo identification for all voters, and has been the subject of several suits challenging the law. The state of Virginia, on the other hand, will accept a Virginia voter registration card or driver's license, employer-issued photo identification card, any identification issued by the government or military, or a social security card. In the instance where such identification is not available, the voter may sign an affidavit affirming identity.

On April 28, 2008, in the case of Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, the Supreme Court upheld the validity of Indiana's voter identification requirement, determining that "on the basis of the record that has been made in this litigation, we cannot conclude that the statute imposes 'excessively burdensome requirements' on any class of voters." (3) The petitioners in Crawford sought to have the entire law invalidated as unconstitutional, instead of portions of the law.

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