The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution specifically forbids Congress from making a law prohibiting the free exercise of religion or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press or the right of the people peaceably to assemble. Nowhere in the First Amendment is there any reference to the fundamental right to vote or the right to hold free elections. At the convention the Founding Fathers could not agree on who could vote, and as a result the Constitution left the qualifications of voters in federal elections to be determined by the states. Article 1, section 2, clause 1 of the Constitution states, "The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second year by the people of the several states, and the electors in each state shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous Branch of the state legislature."
Because of the Constitution's failure to address the qualifications of voters, the states were free to limit the franchise as they saw fit. Some requirements adopted by the states almost 200 years ago are similar to those that are in existence today. A voter must be a citizen, be an inhabitant or resident of a state, and be of a certain age, which in those days was twenty-one years and today is eighteen years. Had the state laws required only these three prerequisites at the time of the adoption of the Constitution in 1789, most persons could have voted. However, in addition to these prerequisites, many other limitations were established by the states to restrict the franchise. Most black persons and all women were ineligible to vote. White males either had to own property or had to be taxpayers in order to vote. As a result, states varied in the percentages of their population allowed to vote in state or federal elections. In 1776, when Pennsylvania required only that a person be a taxpayer with taxables, about 90 percent of adult males could vote. New York, on the other hand, established a dual qualification for voting. The election of state senators and the governor was confined to those who owned 100-pound freeholds. The assembly was to be elected by those who owned 20-pound freeholds or were forty- shilling tenants at will or for years. In 1790, possibly 65 to 70 percent of all adult males in New York could vote for assemblymen, while only 33 percent of all electors could vote for senators and governor. 1
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Publication information: Book title: Handbook of United States Election Laws and Practices:Political Rights. Contributors: Alexander J. Bott - Author. Publisher: Greenwood Press. Place of publication: New York. Publication year: 1990. Page number: 1.
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