Voting Rights in the United States

What barriers to voting do Americans face and why does it matter?

This resource was part of our Election 2020 collection, designed to help you teach about voting rights, media literacy, and civic participation, in remote and in-person settings.


Last updated October 2, 2020.

Voting rights are a fraught issue this year during the 2020 presidential election. Since the US Supreme Court struck down a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, many states have passed laws that create barriers to voting, by limiting the types of ID voters can use, disenfranchising felons, restricting early and absentee voting, and removing voters’ names from registration lists if they have not voted recently. Many of these laws are being challenged in the courts, with critics arguing that they disproportionately affect voters who are racial minorities, poor, or young. These new voting laws affected voting in the 2018 midterm elections and will continue to impact voting this year during the 2020 presidential election.

In addition, many Americans are concerned about voting practices in the upcoming 2020 presidential election. Some of these concerns are based on legitimate worries about the challenges of organizing an election during a pandemic, such as the potential for delays in counting absentee ballots and the pressures on the postal system caused by increased voting by mail. Other concerns are stoked by widespread misinformation about voter fraud and election malpractice. (See the Brennan Center for Justice Report Dirty Tricks: 9 Falsehoods that Could Undermine the 2020 Election for more information on election-related misinformation.) Despite challenges to voting, this election provides students the opportunity to influence future policy on pressing issues by voting or campaigning for candidates.

This Teaching Idea helps students explore the history of voting rights in the United States, the impact of the Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder, and questions around voting rights today.

Note: What follows are teacher-facing instructions for the activities. Find student-facing instructions in the Google Slides for this Teaching Idea.

  1. Explore the History of Voting Rights

    Ask students to reflect on their own connections to voting. Use the Think, Pair, Share teaching strategy to give students the opportunity to discuss the following prompt:

    Do you think voting is important? Why or why not?

    Then, watch the TED-Ed video The Fight for the Right to Vote in the United States (4:30), which provides a brief history of US voting rights. After watching the video, discuss the following questions with your students:

    • Which groups of US citizens have been—or still are—denied the right to vote? Why were these citizens denied their right to vote?
    • When and why has the United States expanded voting rights in the past?

    Extension: To explore the history of voting rights in the United States more deeply, construct a timeline of voting rights with your students using the Human Timeline teaching strategy. Key suffrage moments to use on your Human Timeline include the following:

    • Removal of property requirements
    • The Fourteenth Amendment
    • The Fifteenth Amendment
    • The Nineteenth Amendment
    • Suffrage for Native Americans
    • The Voting Rights Act
    • The Twenty-Sixth Amendment
    • Recent initiatives such as Voter ID requirements and the disenfranchisement of felons

    Remote Learning Note: Students can reflect on the first prompt individually in their journals. (The resource Journals in a Remote Learning Environment provides guidance for setting up student journals during remote learning.) Students can watch the video individually and asynchronously and then respond to the discussion questions during a synchronous session or asynchronously in an online discussion forum.

    To teach the extension remotely, ask students to create a visual timeline—individually or in small groups—rather than a Human Timeline.

  2. Introduce the Voting Rights Act and Shelby County v. Holder

    The 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder provides crucial context for understanding many of the contemporary challenges to voting. In order to explore the significance of that case, students also need to know about the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which was passed to remedy severe restrictions on voting by African Americans during the Jim Crow era. (Note: Consider reading the Vox article How Shelby County v. Holder upended voting rights in America for your own background knowledge.)

    In order to give your students context on the 1965 Voting Rights Act and Shelby County v. Holder, play a section of the New York Times video How Could Voter Suppression Affect the Presidential Election? Look at Georgia, from 4:37-6:52. After you finish watching, ask your students to read the “Facts of the Case” section of the case summary. Ask your students:

    • What was the purpose of the 1965 Voting Rights Act?
    • What aspect of the Voting Rights Act did Shelby County challenge?

    (Note: The New York Times is offering free digital subscriptions to high school students and teachers through September 2021. Without a subscription, you have access to a limited number of free articles/videos per month.)

    Then, place students in groups of four and ask each group to read the “Question” and “Conclusion” sections of the case summary. (For advanced students provide the complete majority and dissenting opinions.)

    Using the Café Conversations teaching strategy, assign students to the following roles:

    • Shelby County representative (the Alabama county claiming the VRA is unconstitutional) Eric Holder, Jr., the former Attorney General for President Obama (defending the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act) Chief Justice John Roberts (writing for the narrow majority of the Court and siding with Shelby County) Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (writing for the minority of the Court and disagreeing with the ruling)

    Prompt students to discuss this case, from their assigned viewpoint, along with the following questions:

    • Why was the Voting Rights Act necessary in 1965?
    • Which districts were considered “eligible districts” under the Voting Rights Act and why?
    • Why did Shelby County challenge  the Voting Rights Act in 2013?
    • What was the Court’s opinion?
    • Why do you think four justices dissented?
    • What do you think has been the impact of Shelby County v. Holder?

    Remote Learning Note: Students can watch the video clip asynchronously. Then, ask students to complete their Café Conversations with their small groups either in virtual breakout rooms during a synchronous session or asynchronously during a defined time period in a discussion forum. You can ask students to use an application like VoiceThread to allow them to record their asynchronous discussions.

  3. Examine Challenges to Voting in 2018

    After Shelby County v. Holder overturned key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, a number of states have passed new restrictions on voting and have made accessing the ballot box more difficult for many. Georgia is one state that has enacted several new voting restrictions, and by examining them students can deepen their understanding of the significance of the Shelby County v. Holder decision.

    Play the next section of the New York Times video How Could Voter Suppression Affect the Presidential Election? Look at Georgia, from 6:52-10:20. Ask your students:

    • What types of laws can make voting more difficult?
    • How can voting laws impact different groups of people differently?

    Then, share the Brennan Center report What’s the Matter with Georgia?1 with your students. You might divide students into four groups, assigning one section of the article to each group, and have them discuss the voting restrictions in Georgia using the Jigsaw strategy.

    Share the Brennan Center interactive map New Voting Restrictions in America with your students. After exploring the information provided on the map, have students synthesize their thinking about it using the S-I-T (Surprising, Interesting, Troubling) strategy.

    Remote Learning Note: Ask your students to watch the video clip asynchronously. To teach the jigsaw activity synchronously, assign students to work in small groups in virtual breakout rooms. Assign each group one section of the Brennan Center report What’s the Matter with Georgia? Then, assign students to new breakout rooms, this time with group members who read different sections of the report.

    To teach the jigsaw activity asynchronously, assign students to small groups. Ask each group member to read a different section of the Brennan Center report What’s the Matter with Georgia? Students should record or write a summary of their section to share with their group members.

    Students can review the Brennan Center interactive map New Voting Restrictions in America asynchronously.

  4. Learn About Voting Today

    Your students may have come across misinformation about voter fraud or election malpractice during the 2020 presidential election. Read the Brennan Center for Justice Report Dirty Tricks: 9 Falsehoods that Could Undermine the 2020 Election ahead of time to help you answer questions or address concerns students might have.

    Ask your students to work together in small groups to brainstorm answers to the question:

    How do you think voting will be different this year because of the pandemic?

    Then, watch the last section of the New York Times video How Could Voter Suppression Affect the Presidential Election? Look at Georgia, from 10:20-15:00. Ask students to reflect on the video using the Connect, Extend, Challenge strategy:

    • Connect: How do the ideas and information in this section of the video connect to what you already brainstormed about voting this year?
    • Extend: How does this video extend or broaden your thinking about voting this year?
    • Challenge: Does this reading challenge or complicate your understanding of voting? What new questions does it raise for you?

    Then, research voting rights in your own state. Use the Washington Post tool How to Vote in Your State to look up voting procedures in your state. Assign students to small groups and give each group a sample voter profile. Voter profiles could include:

    • Voter 1: This person just turned 18 and is hoping to vote for the first time. They still need to register to vote before the election.
    • Voter 2: This person is elderly and lives alone. They have voted during every election in person, but they are nervous about being around other people because of the coronavirus.
    • Voter 3: This person works long shifts at a hospital. They want to vote in person but may have to work on election day.
    • Voter 4: This person does not have a photo ID and has been moving around between friends and relatives since the pandemic began, so they don’t have a stable mailing address.

    Ask students to answer the following questions from the perspective of their voter and then to present their findings to the class:

    • Do you think your voter would be more likely to vote by mail or in person? Why?
    • What are all of the steps your voter needs to take in order to vote?
    • What are the obstacles your voter might face when voting?

    Extension: Ask students to work together in groups to research voting rights in different states and present their findings to the class.

    Remote Learning Note: Assign students to small groups of four and ask each group member to research a different voter profile. Students can respond to the first question, watch the video clip, and conduct research on their voter asynchronously. Then, ask students to present their voter to their groups, either during a synchronous session or asynchronously by posting to a discussion forum during a defined period of time.

Additional Resources:

  • Use the comic Registered to teach your students about the passage of the Twenty-sixth Amendment and youth voting rights. This comic was created through a collaboration between the New York City Department of Education and Good Trouble Comics, who also created the graphic memoir March with the late Congressman John Lewis.
  • The documentary film All In: The Fight for Democracy examines the history of voting rights in the United States and the impact of recent voter suppression efforts. It is available to stream through Amazon Prime.

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