Voting Laws and Constitutional Amendments

Laws governing U.S. elections date back to Article 1 of the Constitution (PDF, Download Adobe Reader), which gave states the responsibility of overseeing federal elections. Numerous Constitutional amendments and federal laws have been passed in the years since to ensure all Americans have the right to vote and the ability to exercise that right.

Constitutional Amendments

  • The 15th Amendment to the Constitution gave African-American men the right to vote. However, many of them weren’t able to exercise this right for nearly 100 years.  Poll taxes, literacy tests, and other means used by some states made it difficult for them to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 eliminated these barriers that prevented many African Americans in the South from voting.
  • The 19th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1920, gave American women the right to vote.
  • The 24th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1964, eliminated poll taxes, which had disproportionately affected African Americans as a barrier to voting in federal elections.
  • The 26th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1971, lowered the voting age for all elections to 18.

Federal Voting Rights Laws

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Various federal laws passed over the years help protect Americans’ right to vote and make it easier for citizens to exercise that right:

  • The Civil Rights Acts provide some of the early federal statutory protections against discrimination in voting (42 U.S.C. 1971 & 1974). These protections originated in the Civil Rights Act of 1870, and were later amended by the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960 and 1964.
  • Voting Rights Act of 1965 – This law prohibits voting practices and procedures that discriminate based on race, color, or membership in a language minority group. It also requires certain jurisdictions to provide election materials in languages other than English.
  • Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984 – This law generally requires polling places to be accessible to people with disabilities.
  • Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) of 1986 – This law allows members of the U.S. Armed Forces and overseas voters to both register to vote and vote by mail.
  • National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) of 1993 – This law increases opportunities to register to vote and creates procedures for maintaining voter registration lists, making it easier for people to stay registered.
  • Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002 – This law authorizes federal funds for election administration and creates the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. It also requires states to adopt minimum standards on voting systems, provisional ballots, voter information posters on election days, and for first time voters who register to vote by mail and statewide voter registration databases. The EAC helps states to comply with these requirements.
  • Military and Overseas Voting Empowerment (MOVE) Act of 2009 – This law amends the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act to improve access to voting by military and overseas voters. It requires states to provide electronic access to various parts of the election process, mail absentee ballots to certain voters at least 45 days before an election, and develop a free access system to inform military and overseas voters about whether their voted ballots were received and counted.

State Voter ID Laws

Two-thirds of states require that you show some form of identification before you’re allowed to vote at the polls. Learn more about states’ Voter ID requirements.