Voting Rights in the United States

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

Last updated February 10, 2020

Access to the ballot box has been contested throughout US history—from the Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments to the Jim Crow era, and from the 1965 Voting Rights Act to the 2013 Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder.

Since the US Supreme Court struck down a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in the case Shelby County v. Holder, many states have passed laws that create barriers to voting, for example by limiting the types of ID voters can use, disenfranchising felons, restricting early and absentee voting, or 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. Voting rights will likely continue to be in the news as the United States approaches the 2020 presidential election.

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.

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

    The 2013 Supreme Court decision in the case 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, ask them to first 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?

    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 it 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. Examine Challenges to Voting Today

    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. 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.

Extension: How Easy Is It to Vote in Your State?

Assign your students to research the state of voting rights and ballot box access in your own state and to present their findings in the class.

Citations

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