Is voting a right or a privilege in the United States?

In my last article, I wrote about whether or not voting makes a difference, in short, it does. However, within that article, I briefly spoke about a subject of fierce debate; Is voting a right or a privilege in the United States?

In that post, I touched on that question but I told you, the reader, that it was out of the scope of that article and it was. But today, we’re going to take a deep dive into this debate, so buckle up and let’s jump in!

What is a right?

When people talk about their “rights” things can go wonky very quickly, especially because the vast majority of Americans aren’t lawyers. Myself included. Now with that said, let’s define what a right is.

As per, a right is that which is due to anyone by just claim, legal guarantees, moral principles, etc.

However, in my opinion, while that definition says what a right is, it’s too general, especially for today’s article, and I want you to be armed with the best information possible, so I also want to give you a legal definition.

According to Cornell Law School, a right is a power or privilege held by the general public as the result of a constitution, statute, regulation, judicial precedent, or other type of law.

If you look at both of these definitions, they’re more or less saying the same thing but Cornell Law School’s definition really helps you to understand what people mean when they speak about their rights.

There’s a higher authority, like a constitution or law somewhere that has granted that to them, to you. So, keep that in mind as we continue.

What is a privilege?

The word privilege has been showing up a lot lately, both in politics and all sorts of social conversations but for this post, I want to keep it laser-focused on this topic.

According to, a privilege is a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed by a particular person or a restricted group of people beyond the advantages of most.

Keeping it simple, a privilege, as per this definition, is something that is enjoyed or entitled to a specific person or group and not others as a whole.

Where do voting rights come from?

Despite what you might think, voting isn’t really talked about in the original copy of the U.S. Constitution.

Same thing with the Bill of Rights. There’s mention of votes and voting with regard to congress and the President but nothing is set in stone with regard to the people.

Nothing that explicitly says, you as an American, have a right to vote.

Now, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution says The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States…

That would indicate that you, a citizen of the state, can vote for those Representatives.

However, outside of that, there weren’t any clear guidelines.

Which ultimately left it up to the states to decide who could vote and what qualifications they would need to do so.

And that’s why voting laws vary from state to state to this day. As a result of this lack of guidelines, voting rights varied wildly all over the country.

In some areas, only land-owning White men could vote, in others freed black men could vote, and so on. It wouldn’t be until the end of the Civil War that voting rights became more uniform.

Amendments after the Civil War

A picture of Civil War centennial stamps - Is voting a right or a privilege in the United States?
Composite photo of five commemorative stamps, commemorating different battles of the American Civil War. Issued on the 100th anniversary of each battle respectively, between 1962 and 1965.

The U.S. Civil War was fought from 1861 to 1865 and is to this day the deadliest war the United States has ever been involved in.

When the war came to a close, the country had several issues to grapple with; the death of Abraham Lincoln, the destruction of the South, and several freed slaves.

It wouldn’t be long after the end of the war, that new Amendments would be made to the constitution, which established the right to vote and others that you’re likely familiar with.

With regard to voting, it would start with the 14 Amendment in 1866.

This amendment granted citizenship to all people born or naturalized in the United States, including formerly enslaved people.

It also guaranteed all citizens equal protection under the law. But this was just the start.

When did people get the right to vote in the U.S.?

Again, almost immediately, certain people had the right to vote in the United States. The U.S. Declaration of Independence itself speaks to the government deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed“.

In other words, the government derives its power from the people, the electorate. Still, certain groups wouldn’t get the right to until new amendments were passed. Let’s look at those amendments.

When did Black Americans get the right to vote?

In 1869, the 15th Amendment was passed and then ratified in 1870, giving black men the right to vote. However, things wouldn’t be that simple, especially in southern states.

While black men would go on to vote and even hold offices within those states, things like literacy tests, and “grandfather clauses” would disenfranchise those voters until well into the 60s.

When did women get the right to vote?

Women would get the right to vote in 1919 with the passing of the 19th Amendment, with it being ratified in 1920. This right had come after years of effort by the Women’s Suffrage movement.

When did 18-year old’s get the right to vote?

Most people think that the 26th Amendment came about after intense anger over the Vietnam War draft and while that’s mostly true, in actuality, many young Americans and politicians alike were frustrated young men could be drafted but not vote since World War II.

The saying “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote” had been around for generations before Vietnam. At the start of World War 2, FDR lowered the age from 21 to 18 for the draft.

While this served the need at the time, it upset many as the average age to vote was 21, depending on the state.

When the Vietnam War broke out in the 60s and another draft was initiated, only this time for a much less popular war, it sparked a movement that would lead to a congressional amendment in March of 1971, giving all citizens 18 years of age and older the right to vote.

So, to answer the question, where do voting rights come from, you can now say, the U.S. Constitution, but it wasn’t our founding fathers that enshrined that right to you.

It was throngs of protestors, activists, and well-intentioned politicians that worked hard on the streets and in the halls of hallowed halls of Congress to guarantee that right, the right to vote, to every American.

If voting is a right, why do some say it’s a privilege with responsibilities?

Great question! In a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, they said that there was a “wide partisan divide” on the question of voting being a right or a privilege.

If we put their clickbaity headline aside and dive into the poll, you’ll be relieved to see that 57% of Americans say that voting is a right and should not be restricted in any way.

Meanwhile, a whopping 42% of Americans say that “voting is a privilege that comes with responsibilities and can be limited if adult U.S. citizens don’t meet some requirements.”

But what does that mean to this 42% of Americans? What do they mean when they say that it comes with “responsibilities” and that it can be limited if “requirements” aren’t met?

What are these “responsibilities” that must be met for voters to enjoy the “privilege” to vote?

More often than not, these responsibilities that must be met are usually discriminatory in one fashion or another. Let me review some of them for you.

You must be a citizen!

Picture of American Flag with white clouds behind it - Is voting a right or a privilege in the United States?
American Flag. Photo by Brett Sayles.

Now, this is mainly true for all elections held within the U.S. at both the local, state, and federal levels. However, some localities will allow non-citizens to vote in local elections.

It makes sense to me, as even though these people are not citizens, they are living here and participating as members of that community.

They likely pay local taxes and darn it, something about taxation without representation, just gets me riled up! Couldn’t for the life of me tell you why…

With that said, that was not the point of this section. Proof of citizenship laws and challenges by staff or onlookers at polling places is wrong and an example of voter intimidation.

If a person or persons show up to the right polling place, with the right identification to vote but do so with the audacity to not “look legal” that does not give anyone the right or ability to ask for “proof” but that sort of thing happens. This is one of the “responsibilities” that people have.

You need a state ID to vote!

While voting laws vary from state to state, one of the biggest hurdles for people has been the requirement for a state government-issued id.

Usually, a driver’s license, while this makes most people shrug and say, “Okay, what’s the big deal”?

This requirement disproportionately affects a wide array of citizens. Specifically poorer populations, which in America tend to be either in the Black or Hispanic communities.

Ids are expensive, perhaps not for most middle-class and upper-class Americans but there are plenty of people where five dollars is just too much, let alone the cost of an id.

So, that’s that, sorry, you can’t participate because you’re poor?

It also affects Native Americans who might not be able to get an id because their mailing address is a P.O. Box on a reservation.

And what about people who are homeless?

What about those that can’t drive or are disabled and cannot get to a DMV? Do we just leave them behind?

The ACLU is aware of these issues and is working vigorously to help those in need to vote, you can read more about it here.

While there are several other “responsibilities” that 42% of Americans and the candidates they vote for want from prospective voters.

It’s important to remember that it’s wrong, voting is a right, our right, and it’s incumbent upon us to keep that right and to continue to fight for it.

What can I do to help with voting rights?

The first thing that anyone can do is vote! If you’re not registered to vote, head over here.

You can check your registration status and if you’re not registered, they can help you navigate those waters.

You can encourage others to vote and help get those who need help to go vote do so.

You’ve probably heard plenty of stories of people who drove others to the polls to vote.

This brings me to my next suggestion, volunteer! There are plenty of organizations that need help, most are staffed with unpaid volunteers but hey, you’re helping the cause!

Lastly, just stay aware, one of the biggest threats we face today isn’t some villain in a suit somewhere in Congress, it’s people not knowing or caring that there is a villain in congress ready and willing to snatch your rights away while you’re looking at Instagram or whatever.

Rounding this out

Is voting a right or a privilege in the United States? It’s a right! A right that is given to all Americans, regardless of their race, gender, religion, or bank account.

It’s our right to head to the polls and cast a ballot because as the Declaration of Independence says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Brave men and women worked hard to make these words true and amended the constitution to ensure the “all men are created equal” part and we should be very wary of those that say it’s a privilege.


Featured Image – provided by Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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