Voting Rights Background for Students

Student campaigning at voter registration

Ariel Skelley / Getty Images

In any presidential election year, the months before the election afford middle and high school teachers a great opportunity to engage students in the new College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards (C3s). These new frameworks are based around guiding students in activities so that they can see how citizens apply civic virtues and democratic principles and have the opportunity to see actual civic engagement in the democratic process.

"Principles such as equality, freedom, liberty, respect for individual rights, and deliberation [that] apply to both official institutions and informal interactions among citizens."

What Do Students Already Know About Voting in the United States?

Before launching an election unit, poll students to see what they already know about the voting process. This can be done as a KWL, or a chart that outlines what students already Know, Want to know, and what they Learned after the unit is completed. Using this outline, students can prepare to research a topic and use it to track information gathered along the way: “What do you already ‘know’ about this topic?” “What things do you ‘want’ to learn about the topic, so you can focus your research?” and “What did you ‘learn’ from doing your research?”

An Overview of KWL

This KWL begins as a brainstorming activity. This can be done individually or in groups of three to five students. Generally, five to 10 minutes individually or 10 to 15 minutes for group work is appropriate. In asking for responses, set aside enough time to hear all responses. Some questions could be (answers below):

  • How old must you be to vote?
  • What requirements are there for voting other than age?
  • When did citizens get the right to vote?
  • What are your state’s voting requirements?
  • Why do you think people vote?
  • Why do you think people choose not to vote?

Teachers should not correct the responses if they are wrong; include any conflicting or multiple responses. Review the list of responses and note any discrepancies, which will let the teacher know where more information is needed. Tell the class that they will be referring back to their responses later in this and in upcoming lessons.

History of Voting Timeline: Pre-Constitution

Inform students that the highest law of the land, the Constitution, mentioned nothing about voting qualifications at the time of its adoption. This omission left voting qualifications up to each individual state and resulted in widely varying voting qualifications.

In studying the election, students should learn the definition of the word suffrage:

Suffrage (n) the right to vote, especially in a political election.

A timeline of the history of voting rights is also helpful to share with students in explaining how the right to vote has been connected to citizenship and civil rights in America. For example:

  • 1776: Only people who own land can vote when the Declaration of Independence was signed.
  • 1787: No federal voting standard—states decide who can vote when the U.S. Constitution is adopted.

Voting Rights Timeline: Constitutional Amendments

In preparation for any presidential election, students can review the following highlights that show how voting rights have been extended to different groups of citizens through six suffrage amendments to the Constitution:

  • 1868, 14th Amendment: Citizenship is defined and granted to formerly enslaved people, but voters are explicitly defined as male.
  • 1870, 15th Amendment: The right to vote cannot be denied by the federal or state governments based on race.
  • 1920, 19th Amendment: Women have the right to vote in both state and federal elections.
  • 1961, 23rd Amendment: Citizens of Washington, D.C. have the right to vote for U.S. president.
  • 1964, 24th Amendment: The right to vote in federal elections will not be denied for failure to pay any tax.
  • 1971, 26th Amendment: 18-year-olds are allowed to vote.

Timeline for Laws on Voting Rights

  • 1857: In the landmark case Dred Scott v. Sandford, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that “a Black man has no rights a white man is bound to respect.” African Americans are further deprived of the right to citizenship and, by extension, the right to vote.
  • 1882: Congress passes the Chinese Exclusion Act, which establishes restrictions and quotas on Chinese immigration while legally excluding Chinese persons from citizenship and voting. 
  • 1924: The Indian Citizenship Act declares all noncitizen Native Americans born in the U.S. to be citizens with the right to vote.
  • 1965: The Voting Rights Act is signed into law, prohibiting any election practice that denies the right to vote to citizens on the basis of race and forces jurisdictions with histories of voter discrimination to submit any changes to its election laws to the government for federal approval prior to taking effect.
  • 1993: The National Voter Registration Act requires states to permit mail-in registration, and make registration services available at DMVs, unemployment offices, and other state agencies.

Questions About Researching Voting Rights

Once students are familiar with the timeline of the Constitutional Amendments and the laws that provided the right to vote to different citizens, students can research the following questions:

  • What were the ways states denied certain people the right to vote?
  • Why were each of the different laws on voting rights created?
  • Why are specific Constitutional Amendments on voting necessary?
  • Why do you think it took so many years for women to gain the right to vote?
  • Which historical events contributed to each of the Constitutional Amendments?
  • Are there any other qualifications necessary to vote?
  • Are there citizens today who are denied the right to vote?

Terms Associated With Voting Rights

Students should become familiar with some of the terms associated with the history of voting rights and the language of the Constitutional Amendments:

  • Poll tax: A poll or head tax is one imposed equally on all adults at the time of voting and is not affected by property ownership or income.
  • Literacy test: Literacy tests were used to keep people of color—and, sometimes, poor White people—from voting, and they were administered at the discretion of the officials in charge of voter registration.
  • Grandfather clause (or grandfather policy): A provision in which an old rule continues to apply to some existing situations, while a new rule will apply to all future cases.
  • Residency: Voting residence is within the state of legal residence or domicile. It is the true, fixed address that is considered a permanent home and a physical presence.
  • Jim Crow Laws: The segregation and disenfranchisement laws known as "Jim Crow" represented a formal, codified system of racial apartheid that dominated the American South for three-quarters of a century beginning in the 1890s.
  • Equal Rights Amendment (ERA): A proposed amendment to the United States Constitution designed to guarantee equal rights for women. In 1978, a joint resolution of Congress extended the ratification deadline to June 30, 1982, but no further states ratified the amendment. Several organizations continue to work for the adoption of the ERA.

New Questions for Students

Teachers should have students return to their KWL charts and make any necessary corrections. Teachers can then have students use their research on laws and specific Constitutional amendments to answer the following new questions:

  • How does your new knowledge of suffrage amendments change or support your earlier answers?
  • After nearly 150 years of voting rights being added to the Constitution, can you think of any other group that has not been considered?
  • What questions do you still have about voting?

Review Founding Documents

The new C3 Frameworks encourage teachers to look for civic principles in texts such as the founding documents of the United States. In reading these important documents, teachers can help students understand different interpretations of these documents and their meanings:

  1. What claims are made?
  2. What evidence is used?
  3. What language (words, phrases, images,  symbols) is used to persuade the document's audience?
  4. How does the document's language indicate a particular point of view?

The following links will take students to founding documents associated with voting and citizenship.

  • Declaration of Independence: July 4, 1776. The Second Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia in the Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall), approved this document severing the colonies' ties to the British Crown.
  • United States Constitution: The Constitution of the United States of America is the supreme law of the United States. It is the source of all government powers, and also provides important limitations on the government that protect the fundamental rights of United States citizens. Delaware was the first state to ratify it on December 7, 1787; the Confederation Congress established March 9, 1789, as the date to begin operating under the Constitution.
  • 14th Amendment: Passed by Congress June 13, 1866, and ratified July 9, 1868, it extended liberties and rights granted by the Bill of Rights to formerly enslaved people.
  • 15th Amendment: Passed by Congress February 26, 1869, and ratified February 3, 1870, this granted African American men the right to vote.
  • 19th AmendmentPassed by Congress June 4, 1919, and ratified on August 18, 1920, this granted women the right to vote.
  • Voting Rights Act: This act was signed into law on August 6, 1965, by President Lyndon Johnson. It outlawed the discriminatory voting practices adopted in many southern states after the Civil War, including literacy tests as a prerequisite to voting.
  • 23th Amendment: Passed by Congress June 16, 1960 and ratified on March 29, 1961, this amendment gave residents of the District of Columbia the right to have their votes counted in presidential elections.
  • 24th Amendment: Ratified on January 23, 1964, this amendment was passed to address the poll tax, a state fee on voting.

Student Answers to Questions Above

How old must you be to vote? 

  • In the United States, one-third of the states permit 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections and caucuses if they will be 18 by election day.

What requirements are there for voting other than age? 

  • You are a U.S. citizen.
  • You meet your state’s residency requirements.

When did citizens get the right to vote?

  • The United States Constitution did not originally define who was eligible to vote; amendments have extended rights to various groups.

Student answers will vary on the following questions:

  • What are your state’s voting requirements?
  • Why do you think people vote?
  • Why do you think people choose not to vote?
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Bennett, Colette. "Voting Rights Background for Students." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Bennett, Colette. (2023, April 5). Voting Rights Background for Students. Retrieved from Bennett, Colette. "Voting Rights Background for Students." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).