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Understanding Voter Eligibility and the American Voter

October 16, 2000
Web posted at: 5:55 PM EDT (2155 GMT)

The Historical Expansion of Suffrage in America: The right to vote, or suffrage, in America has not always been universal. In 1789, only white, adult males who owned property, about one in fifteen Americans, could vote in elections. Political leaders believed that non-propertied individuals who had no real stake in society would have little or no interest in voting. Furthermore, there were even religious voting tests, whereby citizens who did not belong to a state's majority church (the dominant church in terms of total membership) were denied suffrage. Fortunately, religious qualifications disappeared by the early 1800s, where property requirements were abolished by the middle of the nineteenth century.

In 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment's ratification barred the states from using race as a voting requirement, although many African-Americans, especially in the South, were still denied the right to vote through such devices as white primaries, grandfather clauses, or literacy tests. In 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment gave women the right to vote for the first time. The Twenty-third Amendment, ratified in 1961, extended the suffrage to voters in Washington, D.C. The Twenty-fourth Amendment (1964) eliminated the poll tax (a poor citizen had to make a hefty payment before being allowed to vote) as a requirement for voting in any federal election. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act suspended literacy tests and permitted federal voting examiners to register voters. The result was a dramatic increase in black voter registration, especially in the South. The Twenty-sixth Amendment (1971) stipulated that eighteen-year-olds were now eligible to vote in both state and national elections. Prior to this amendment, twenty-one had been the minimum age for voting. But the prevailing argument then was that if "young Americans were old enough to be drafted into the military and fight for their country, then they were old enough to vote." Today, virtually all American citizens 18 and older are eligible to vote. Aliens, or non-citizens, are not permitted to vote in any election throughout the United States.

Current Requirements for Voting Universal suffrage applies to those American citizens who comply with the legal requirements of residence and registration. The residence requirement stipulates that a citizen must have lived in a state's election district for a prescribed period of time, typically thirty days, before becoming eligible to vote. This is true in nearly half the states, but there are even shorter time periods, or even no time requirement at all, in others. The residence requirement assumes that a voter must have enough time to learn about specific local and/or state candidates and their stands on the issues. Registration is a process of identifying voters so that electoral fraud is avoided (prior to registration, citizens were bribed by corrupt 19th and early 20th century party bosses to vote over and over again). Except for North Dakota, all states mandate voter registration. A voter must leave his or her name with a county clerk or local election registrar. Usually, a voter remains registered until he or she moves to another locality or state, where the registration procedure must occur again. In many states, voters' names are deleted from registration rolls if they do not vote in a specified number of consecutive elections (automatic deletions by states have now been restricted due to the "Motor Voter" law described below), are convicted of felonies, or are confined to mental institutions.

In the past, many Americans have failed to register for a variety of reasons. One is that America is a highly mobile society, so many Americans who change their residence each year fail to re-reregister. A second is that many registration centers were open only during working hours, not on weekends or evenings. But whatever the reason, the result was voter ineligibility. To solve this problem, Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, dubbed the "Motor Voter" law, which requires states to register its citizens when they apply for, renew, or change the address on their driver's licenses. Most of the adult population is covered through this provision. States must also provide registration locations at military recruiting centers, libraries, schools, and the offices of other state and local government agencies. Furthermore, all states must allow voters to register by mail. The law has led millions of Americans to register. But, despite this fact, voter turnout has continued to decline. Critics do fault the registration system, arguing that in order to increase voter participation, all Americans should have lifetime registration (computerized registration information could follow citizens to new locations and automatically re-register them) and all states should allow election-day registration (estimates are that this would increase voting by 5-10 percent nationally). However, on the debit side, the voting process might be delayed considerably with much longer lines if significant numbers of citizens decided to register on election day in their respective polling precincts.

Why Many Americans Don't Vote Fewer than 50 percent of Americans voted in the 1996 presidential election, the lowest turnout since 1924! Typically, turnout is only about 40 percent in off-year congressional elections, and perhaps averages 20-25 percent in state and local political races around the nation. America has among the lowest turnout percentages when contrasted with other democracies such as Austria or Sweden (frequently over 90 percent in those two nations). Also, note that other democracies provide automatic registration for citizens or even fine people who do not vote, such as in Uruguay or Australia.

But political scientists point out that the American voting turnout figures in presidential elections are misleading when compared to other democracies. For example, the United States Census Bureau defines "official turnout" as the "number of people voting for President divided by the number of people in the voting age population." The latter includes people who are ineligible to vote (such as felons or illegal aliens) and who have not registered. If you divide the actual voters by the actual population of registered voters as many other nations do, then the American turnout percentage would be roughly in the middle-range of turnout found in the industrial democracies. However, the general problem of non-voting cannot be so easily dismissed.

There are many reasons offered for non-voting. First, there are those citizens who feel that "it makes no difference who wins." They believe that regardless of which party's candidate is elected, the political system will continue to operate effectively. Both of the two major political parties are perceived by these Americans as similar in political philosophy (even though this may not really be true). Differences may exist, but they are not deemed to be especially significant. They also distrust politicians in general ("all politicians are crooked"), so to them elections have little value or meaning. Second, there is the "I can't influence the political system by voting" view. These citizens lack political efficacy, or the attitude that their votes will truly make a difference in what public policies, decisions, or laws are passed. In addition, many citizens with this belief are voter "dropouts" who no longer find any candidate worthy of their time or attention. Contributing to this attitude is the absence of real competition in many congressional, state, or even local elections.

A third reason relates to the "I know nothing or care not about politics" view. Citizens in this category are largely apathetic, disinterested, and uninformed about political life, campaigns, candidates, issues, or elections. To some observers, it is better that these individuals do not vote, since American democracy should depend upon that segment of the population that is really concerned about public life. Fourth is the "I wasn't registered," or the "polling lines were too long" explanation. These voters are stymied by the registration requirement previously discussed, or by the inconvenience of going to the polls after a long workday. Some observers have suggested that election day be made a national holiday, with the polls open from 7:00 a.m. to midnight so as to accommodate working voters. Of course, these longer hours might facilitate election-day registration procedures as well.

Who Votes?

It is clear that American voters have different perceptions of their political world than do non-voters. These perceptions are a reflection of education and income, loyalty to a political party, occupation, and age. First, voters generally have higher levels of education and income. For example, college graduates vote more often than high school graduates; high school graduates tend to vote in greater numbers than those with only a grade school education. The reason is that individuals with more schooling are more likely to be informed about politics, follow the news more closely, possess a greater sense of political efficacy, and believe that voting is an important civic duty. Low-income voters may have less of a sense of involvement with, or control over, their political environment. Similarly, high-income citizens are more likely to be property owners who perceive political choices as important to their standard of living and personal futures. Second, voters identify more strongly with political parties than do non-voters. Strong party identification, be it Democratic, Republican or third party, intensifies a voter's interest in supporting his or her partisan candidates on election day. Third, occupationally, white-collar professionals, businessmen, and union members vote more than unskilled workers, blue-collar laborers, or non-union members. Fourth, middle-aged voters and senior citizens are more likely to vote than very young voters, especially those who comprise the eighteen-to-twenty-one age category. Many in that category are still in school and/or concerned with starting a career, and so are less interested in political issues and elections.


A citizen who registers and then votes in elections is exercising a hard-won privilege, a privilege that is synonymous with the highest order of civic duty in America. What is especially ironic is that as barriers to voting have come down, proportionally greater numbers of individuals in the nation have not voted. A democracy does depend upon an extensively informed and attentive citizenry. Perhaps this century will witness a rebirth of political interest among many non-voting Americans, for the problems the nation faces will surely be even more vital to their lives than ever before.


1. Why do Americans fail to vote on Election Day?

2. What barriers to suffrage have been removed throughout America's history?

3. What does the "Motor Voter" law do? Has it been effective? Why or why not?

4. What are some of the major characteristics of non-voters? Of voters?

5. How do the requirements of registration and residency affect voting patterns in America?

Lesson plan: The Voters

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