Voting Rights in the United States

Last updated October 29, 2021

Elections are crucial to democracy, ensuring people a voice in their government. Throughout US history, different groups of Americans have fought for the right to vote, both because this right is crucial for participating in democracy and because the right to vote is symbolic of the right to belong in the nation.

Since the 2020 election, 17 states have enacted legislation that makes it easier to vote, such as legislation that registers voters automatically and expands access to early or absentee voting. Other states have moved in the opposite direction, passing laws that create barriers to voting. These laws include requiring people to present IDs to vote, disenfranchising people who were previously convicted of felonies, restricting early and absentee voting, and removing voters’ names from registration lists if they have not recently voted. The Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder to strike down portions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act has made it easier for states to enact new restrictions on voting, and many of these new restrictions are being challenged in the courts, with critics arguing that they disproportionately affect voters who are racial minorities, poor, or young.

In Part 1 of this Teaching Idea, students reflect on how voting laws in different states impact voters today, and in Part 2, students learn about the history of voting rights and the impact of the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder. You can use the entire Teaching Idea or a selection of activities from one or both parts.

Note: Your students may have questions about whether voting restrictions are necessary to prevent voter fraud. You can use our Explainer on Free and Fair Elections to help students understand how elections can be organized in a way that is both free, meaning all eligible voters are able to cast ballots, and fair, meaning each vote has equal weight and is counted accurately. The Brennan Center report The Truth About Voter Fraud also has useful information about different claims related to voter fraud, which you can share with your students.

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

Part 1: What Is the State of Voting Rights Today?

  1. How Would You Organize an Election?

    Begin by asking your students to reflect on the following prompts together in small groups:

    Imagine your school is holding a student government election. The newly elected student officers will get a voice in deciding major school policies. Your group is tasked with organizing the school elections.

    • What are some voting policies that would make it easy for every student to vote? (Think, for example, about the time, location, and method of voting)
    • What are some voting policies that would make it difficult for students to vote? What groups of students would be impacted differently by these policies and why? (Think, for example, about students who take the bus to and from school, student-athletes who have practice at certain times, or students in different grades.)
    • How do you think students who belong to groups that have more trouble voting would feel about the elections? Do you think it would impact their sense of belonging at the school? Why or why not?
    • How could you make sure each student can vote, but only once?

    Once students have finished discussing the prompts in small groups, ask for volunteers to share their group's ideas with the full class.

    Then, tell students that the next activities will help them think about the policies that can make it easier or harder to vote in state or national elections.

  2. How Easy Is it for People to Vote in Different States?

    In this activity, students learn about how voting policies in different states could impact individuals and groups of voters differently, depending on their identities and life circumstances. To complete this activity in class, students need to have access to at least one computer or tablet per small group to access the Washington Post tool How to Vote in Your State. Alternatively, they can conduct the research as homework.

    Explain that voting policies, such as the number of polling stations or restrictions on mail-in voting, are determined mainly by states. This activity will help students see how different state policies impact different voters’ ability to cast ballots and make their voices heard.

    Place students in small groups and assign each group a 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 currently recuperating from an accident and have trouble leaving the house.
    • 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, so they don’t have a stable mailing address.

    First, students should look at NPR’s map How Voting Laws Have Changed Since The 2020 Election, and choose one state that has expanded voting rights (indicated in turquoise) and one that has restricted them (indicated in orange). Then, they should use the Washington Post tool How to Vote in Your State to look up voting procedures in those two states, from the perspective of their voter.

    Ask students to answer the following questions from the perspective of their voter and then 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 in the two different states?
    • What are the obstacles your voter might face when voting? Are the obstacles different in the two states?
  3. What Impact Do Voting Restrictions Have on Different Groups of Voters?

    In this activity, students engage with three stories in the reading Voting Rights in the United States that demonstrate how voting restrictions can impact various groups of people in different ways. You can organize this activity in a variety of ways: you might create stations, or place students into groups and ask them to read each story in turn, or set up a Jigsaw by asking students to read one story with their first group and then to present the main takeaways of their story to their classmates who read other stories.

    As students read the stories, they should discuss the following questions:

    • Why did the person (or people) in this story have difficulty voting?
    • What parallels do you see between the voting restrictions described in this piece and the school voting policies you discussed in the first activity?
    • Why do voting restrictions impact some groups of people more than others?

    Finally, ask your students to reflect on the following prompts in their journals:

    • If it is more difficult for certain groups of people to vote, what effect does that have on how representative the government is?
    • What should happen when it is apparent that voting restrictions impact some groups more than others? What might happen if such disparities go unaddressed?
    • Anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells said: “With no sacredness of the ballot, there can be no sacredness of human life itself.” What do you think this quote reveals about the importance of the right to vote?

    Extension: How Would New Laws Impact Voting?

    Look up proposed voting rights legislation with your students, such as the Freedom to Vote Act, the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, or the Native American Voting Rights Act. Ask students:

    How would the changes proposed in these bills change the experience of voting for the sample voters in activity 2 or the voters you learned about in activity 3?

Part 2: How Did We Get Here?

  1. What Is the History of Voting Rights in the United States?

    Place students in pairs, and give each pair a copy of KQED’s U.S. Voting Rights Timeline. (Note: You can also share a portion of this timeline if you wish to focus on one time period in US history.)

    Ask students to read through the timeline with their partner. For each event, they should decide if it is an example of an expansion of voting rights, a limitation on voting rights, or both. When students have finished, ask them:

    • What information on the timeline surprised you?
    • How do voting rights reflect who is considered to be “American” at different points in the country’s history?
  2. What Impact Did Shelby County v. Holder Have on Voting Rights?

    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.)

    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 (published before the 2020 Presidential Election) 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 Shelby County v. Holder case summary. Ask students:

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

    Then, place students in groups of four and assign each member of the group a different role from the following list:

    • 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)

    Ask each group to read the “Question” and “Conclusion” sections of the case summary. (For advanced students provide the complete majority and dissenting opinions.) As they read, they should take note of any information that could help them understand their role better.

    Once students finish reading, they should use the Café Conversations strategy to discuss this case in their groups, from their assigned viewpoints. They can use the following questions to help guide their discussions:

    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?
  3. Final Reflection

    Ask your students to return to their journal reflections from the end of Part 1 and to add any additional ideas they have about the questions after learning more about the history of voting rights.

    • If it is more difficult for certain groups of people to vote, what effect does that have on how representative the government is?
    • What should happen when it is apparent that voting restrictions impact some groups more than others? What might happen if such disparities go unaddressed?
    • Anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells said: “With no sacredness of the ballot, there can be no sacredness of human life itself.” What do you think this quote reveals about the importance of the right to vote?
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