Chapter 9: Expanding the Right to Vote

13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments

Reconstruction, at the end of slavery and the Civil War, involved ratification of three Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The 13th Amendment, ratified in 1865, abolished the institution of slavery “except as punishment for crime”; the 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, established birthright citizenship; and the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, removed race as a requirement for voting and thereby enabled universal manhood suffrage at age 21. The Reconstruction Amendments expanded citizenship and the vote to Black American men.

The political and military Reconstruction of the Republican Party, or Grand Old Party (GOP), required the former rebel Southern states to ratify the Reconstruction Amendments; provided federal military occupation to enforce Reconstruction; and enabled Black religious, secular, and educational institutions. Scholars have suggested that as many as 2,000 Black men participated in government at the local, state, and federal levels across the South from 1870 to 1901. The state of Florida elected Josiah T. Walls (1842-1905), a Black veteran of the Union army in the Civil War, to the U.S. House of Representatives for three terms from 1871 to 1876. Walls was a member of the Black and White (also called Black and Tan) coalition of the Republican Party in the state and the South.

Congressman Josiah Walls from Florida appears seated in the center bottom row. Other Black congressmen and senators are (Left to right) Senator Hiram Revels of Mississippi, Representatives Benjamin Turner of Alabama, Robert DeLarge of South Carolina, Jefferson Long of Georgia, Joseph Rainey and Robert B. Elliot of South Carolina.
(Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

13th Amendment Congressional Resolution

A resolution is passed by congress to amend the Constitution and sent to the states for ratification. When 3/4 of the states have ratified the amendment it is added to the Constitution.

(Image courtesy of the National Archives.)

14th Amendment Congressional Resolution

15th Amendment Congressional Resolution

“This is a white man’s government.”
Thomas Nast, Harper’s Weekly, September 5, 1868, p. 568.

Florida was the first state to introduce a poll tax to eliminate Black voting in 1888. Over time the poll tax became the most common disfranchisement mechanism in the South along with literacy and “understanding” tests and “grandfather” clauses. Literacy and “understanding” tests required Black men to demonstrate reading comprehension as determined by White voting registrars. “Grandfather” clauses required lineal descent of voting status that pre-dated Reconstruction; only White men had access to suffrage prior to Reconstruction. By the turn of the 20th century, the Republican Party had split along racial lines with the “Lily Whites” dominating the party, and the GOP shifted from racial inclusion to racial exile regarding Black Americans.

Skeleton ‘solid Southern shotgun’ holding shotgun at polls, to prevent African Americans from voting, 1879.
Thomas Nast, Harper’s Weekly, October 18, 1879, p. 1.

19th Amendment Congressional Resolution

Dr. Mary Jane McLeod Bethune, the founder of Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Florida, founded the Southeastern Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs (SFCWC) in 1920. Sykes Photo. “Dr. Mary Jane McLeod Bethune.” RICHES, accessed December 10, 2020,

24th Amendment Congressional Resolution

(Image courtesy of Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.)

26th Amendment Congressional Resolution

The 26th Amendment, ratified in 1971, expanded the legal voting age to 18.

Congressional Actions to Expand the Vote

Voting Rights Act of 1965

The signal achievement of the mid-20th century Civil Rights Movement was the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which enfranchised African Americans residing in the South after decades of anti-Black violence calculated to forestall voting efforts and legislating disfranchisement devices. The VRA enforced the 15th Amendment and, in combination with the 19th Amendment, which provided women’s suffrage, enabled African American access to the franchise throughout the nation. Into the 21st century, Congress amended the VRA five times to strengthen its provisions.

President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. appears in the photo standing behind Johnson among politicians and civil rights activists.
(Photo courtesy of New Georgia Encyclopedia via Digital Library of Georgia.)

However, in the case of Shelby County, Alabama v. Eric Holder, Jr. Attorney General (2013) the Supreme Court weakened the VRA. Section 4(b) of the VRA required those jurisdictions which had voting tests in place on November 1, 1964 and with less than 50% turnout in the 1964 presidential election to secure federal authorization before making changes to state voting laws; this formula determined those districts that required pre-clearance before changing state voting laws. Section 5 prohibited eligible districts from changing voting requirements without pre-clearance. The Supreme Court ruled Section 4(b) unconstitutional but did not outlaw Section 5. The decision rendered Section 5 impossible to enforce while it enabled voting restrictions.

Expanding the Vote by State and Federal Legislation

State and federal legislation to expand the vote has included:

Early voting days – Florida Statute 101.657 (2017)

National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (Motor Voter Act)

Mail-in and Absentee Ballots – Help America Vote Act of 1992 S.26;
S.26 Vote by Mail Act of 2019

Military and Overseas Voters – The Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act of 2009; Expansion of the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) of 1986.

Clearly, despite efforts to expand democracy over the long CRM of the 20th century, citizenship and voting rights continue as sites of contestation in U.S. political and popular culture into the 21st century.

Black United States Representatives in Florida

Block, Herbert, Artist. Continuation of a march / Herblock. , 1965. Photograph.

Currier & Ives. The first colored senator and representatives – in the 41st and 42nd Congress of the United States. United States, 1872. New York: Published by Currier & Ives. Photograph.

Gates, Henry Louis Jr. Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow. New York: Penguin Press, 2019.

Jones, Martha S. Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All. New York: Basic Books, 2020.

Mahony, Felix, Artist. Your last chance to register. It’s so easy and a great privilege. , 1908. Photograph.

Nast, Thomas. “Skeleton ‘solid Southern shotgun’ holding shotgun at polls, to prevent African Americans from voting, 1879.” Harper’s Weekly, October 18, 1879, p. 1.

Nast, Thomas. “This is a white man’s government.” Harper’s Weekly, September 5, 1868, p. 568.

Okamoto, Yoichi R. “Johnson signs Voting Rights Act.” Digital Public Library of America.

The election–At the polls / W.J.H. , 1857. Photograph.

“The Georgetown Election – The Negro at the Ballot Box.” Harper’s Weekly, March 16, 1867, p. 172.

Watts, Jill. The Black Cabinet: The Untold Story of African Americans and Politics During the Age of Roosevelt. New York: Grove Press, 2020.