I think about homeownership, a lot. Working to realize Landed's mission to help essential professionals build financial security near the communities they serve, I talk to future homeowners every day on the phone about their goals and dreams to buy a home, to own something, to invest in themselves.
With Election Day 2020 already upon us (as of this writing, over sixty million votes have already been cast), I’ve been thinking about voting a lot, too (as has Landed co-founder Alex Lofton). And, as you may remember from history class, the two (homeownership and voting) used to be intrinsically linked.
Property Owners to All White Men
For some, it is easy to take the right to vote for granted. It feels core to being a part of this self-governed, kingless, representative democracy. But it’s worth reflecting on the intentional work and battles fought to get our voting rights to where they are today. In the early days of America, voting was a right tied to land ownership. Only white male property owners could vote - just six percent of the population at the time.
Eventually, the land ownership requirement was removed. As settlers moved westward, newly established states left out the “property owner” requirement, partially because so few of those who resided in those new states did own property. When Andrew Jackson became president he advocated for “universal” suffrage, by which he meant removing the property ownership requirement, so that all white men could vote. Jackson (not a president remembered for his progressive policies toward Native Americans and Black people) did expand voting rights somewhat, but obviously, lots of people were still excluded.
Men of All Shades, in Theory
In 1861, after the Civil War, the 15th Amendment promised that race, color, and previous condition as an enslaved person could not impede one’s right to vote. Technically, Black men had won the right to vote. But in reality, this was the beginning of widespread efforts to keep them from actually exercising said right.
Poll taxes, literacy tests, intimidation, and much more, actually lowered the percentage of Black men registered to vote over the next few decades. Look at Mississippi for example. In 1892, six percent of Mississippi’s Black men were registered to vote. By 1960, it was down to one percent.
Universal Suffrage & the Voting Rights Act
The next move toward granting more Americans the right to vote came in 1920, when the 19th Amendment allowed women to have their say.
In 1924, Native Americans were granted the right to be United States citizens, which should have given them the right to vote, but it ended up being a state by state battle (remember, states determine their own voting rights). The last state to fully guarantee voting rights for Native people was Utah in 1962. Even still, they faced many of the same obstacles that Black voters faced, like poll taxes, literacy tests, and intimidation.
In the 1940s, the Civil Rights movement began, largely with the issue of voter exclusion, suppression, and intimidation of Black Americans at its center. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed, which eliminated restrictions which made it harder to vote and protected the rights laid out in the 15th Amendment.
At that point, any United States citizen over the age of 21 could vote. But with the Vietnam War, the country began to wonder why 18 was old enough to be drafted, but not old enough to vote. So came the 26th Amendment, in 1971, which expanded the voting citizenry to include those 18 and up.
Bit by bit, over the course of nearly two centuries, we slowly knocked down barriers, inviting more and more Americans to express their opinions through their votes. There are still many who can’t vote. Depending on which state you’re in, people with felony convictions may or may not be allowed to vote. Non-citizens can’t vote, including permanent legal residents. And, in presidential elections specifically, United States citizens living in US territories are not allowed to vote.
Chipping Away at The Right to Vote
There have been steps toward including more Americans in this essential democratic act. And why not? The people we elect create policies which affect all of our lives, not just the lives of those who voted. But we’ve also witnessed more recent efforts to restrict and suppress many Americans’ ability to vote.
In 2013, the Supreme Court’s ruling in the case Shelby County v. Holder invalidated a portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The portion in question was “preclearance”, the part of the law intended to ensure states and counties with a history of discriminatory voting laws did not pass new restrictions which would hinder voters of color from voting. (Preclearance meant that any major changes to voting and election systems had to be ‘cleared’ by the Justice Department or federal court before they could be made.) But Shelby County, Alabama argued that the preclearance requirements were excessive and unnecessary, and in a 5-4 decision, the court agreed.
The American Prospect (prospect.org)
In the last decade, 25 states have passed new voting restrictions. Some of the most common? More restrictive voter ID laws, laws to make it harder to register and to stay registered, laws making it harder to vote early or absentee, and additional restrictions for people with criminal records to vote.
Now What? VOTE!
I know you don’t come to Landed to get a history of voting rights in America, but my point here is that it’s not a set deal. If there’s anything I take away from this look back, it’s that voting rights have and will continue to vacillate.
As a non-property owning woman with the right to vote, I’m trying to not take this right for granted.
What can we do to protect the right to vote for all Americans into the future? Well, we can vote*.
*If you need information on how to vote, visit vote.org now!