The history of voting in the United States

Published 1:05 am Thursday, September 15, 2022

Rob Crandall // Shutterstock

The history of voting in the United States

Elections are the foundation of representative democracy. Your right to have a say at the ballot box was paid for with blood on foreign battlefields, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and debated endlessly in the halls of Congress and living-room suffrage meetings. The right of the governed to choose their leaders was originally reserved only for a privileged few in the ruling class; however, throughout the decades and centuries, the franchise slowly and steadily moved beyond the exclusive grasp of the aristocracy and into the reach of the average American.

Racism, sexism, fear, and tradition kept entire generations from participating in the country’s most basic institution. But as barriers have gone up, they have also come down. From the very beginning, generations of bold, brave, and committed activists battled to expand the right to vote to the disenfranchised—often against great odds and sometimes at the expense of their freedom and even their lives.

This story is being released as part of a project called Democracy Day, aimed at highlighting the threats to our democracy and the importance of protecting it. As such, Stacker examined how voting rights have evolved in America, how much has been accomplished, and how much remains to be done.

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Ridpath, John Clark, 1840-1900 // WikiCommons

1607: The Jamestown election

Almost immediately after landing in the New World, settlers at Jamestown, Virginia, held an election to choose a president of Great Britain’s first permanent settlement in the Americas. Although the nominees were predetermined and only a select, privileged few—just 6% of the colonists—were allowed to vote, the stage had been set for the birth of democracy in what would become America. For the first time, leaders were chosen by those they would govern—or at least by some of them.

Catherine // WikiCommons

1619: Jamestown Church assembly

The first representative assembly in British America convened on July 30, 1619, when the leaders of all of Virginia’s 21 plantations and corporations gathered to choose a speaker and draft a charter. The meeting at Jamestown Church was the first clear break from the British parliamentary system and the genesis of what would become American democracy. By the mid-1700s, the new model of representative government had swept all 13 colonies, and voting was the norm; however, few were allowed to participate, and electoral systems were inconsistent from colony to colony.

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Historical Society of Pennsylvania // WikiCommons

1776: John Adams’ letter to James Sullivan

In a letter to Massachusetts Gov. James Sullivan, founding father and Declaration of Independence signer John Adams set the tone for the limited democracy that would define early America when he cautioned against enfranchising the masses. In 1776, voting was limited to only some land-owning white men over the age of 21, and Adams warned that if those standards were lowered, “there will be no End of it. New Claims will arise. Women will demand a Vote. Lads from 12 to 21 will think their Rights not enough attended to, and every Man, who has not a Farthing, will demand an equal Voice with any other in all Acts of State. It tends to confound and destroy all Distinctions, and prostrate all Ranks, to one common Levell[sp].”

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zimmytws // Shutterstock

1787: Ratification of Article I of the Constitution

Article I of the Constitution gave states the authority and responsibility of overseeing federal elections; however, it left room for Congress to make laws that would override state regulations if deemed necessary.

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precious // Shutterstock

1792: Criminal disenfranchisement in Kentucky

In a move that would reverberate throughout the centuries and into the present day, Kentucky in 1792 became the first of many states to disenfranchise people convicted of certain crimes. In much of the country, even today, the right of American citizens to have a voice in their government is still determined by their status in the criminal justice system.

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Elkanah Tisdale // WIkiCommons

1812: The first gerrymandered district

In 1812, Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry approved a state Senate district shaped like a salamander. His critics mocked the district as the “Gerry-Mander.” More than a century later, America is embroiled in a fierce debate about the impact and legality of gerrymandering, the practice of re-drawing voting districts in a way that is designed to give one party an advantage over another.

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The Bureau of Engraving and Printing // WikiCommons

1824: The election of John Quincy Adams

An odd but consequential peculiarity of American democracy called the Electoral College was put on display in 1824 when John Quincy Adams won the presidency after losing the popular vote. He was the first of five presidents who would ascend to the White House despite the fact that more Americans voted for his opponent. The first three were in the 19th century; the fourth was President George W. Bush; and the fifth was President Donald Trump. In 2016, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton received nearly 3 million more votes than former President Trump.

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Kenneth C. Zirkel // WikiCommons

1848: The Seneca Falls convention

Abolitionists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott solidified the women’s rights movement in 1848 when they organized a historic meeting in Seneca Falls, New York. Hundreds of abolitionists, famous freedom activists like Frederick Douglass, and otherwise nonpolitical women gathered together to call for equality for women in the United States for the first time. One of their central demands was the right to vote, marking the start of the women’s suffrage movement.

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State Archives of North Carolina Raleigh, NC’s // Flickr

1856: Property requirement lifted

In 1856, North Carolina became the last state to abolish the property requirement, which had restricted voting to only landowners for as long as America had been a country. Nearly all free white men could now vote, signaling one of the most significant expansions of voting rights since the founding of the republic. Free Black men could vote in six northern states at that time as well; women could not vote at all.

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Allyn Cox // WikiCommons

1866: Civil Rights Act of 1866

Congress legislated on civil rights for the first time in history when it overrode a veto by President Andrew Jackson to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1866. The bill granted citizenship to all native-born citizens—excluding Native Americans. It also did not guarantee the right to vote.

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Schlesinger Libriary, RIAS, Harvard University // WikiCommons

1869: Wyoming grants women the right to vote

Although the Western territory wouldn’t become a state until 1890, Wyoming granted women full voting rights more than two decades before it officially entered the Union. Its neighboring territories soon followed suit, making the Wild West the first region in America where women participated openly and equally in democracy.

US Library of Congress // WikiCommons

1869: Edison invents the electric voting machine

Thomas Edison is the most famous inventor in American history and a man who racked up more than 1,000 patents, the very first of which was a copyright for the world’s first electric voting machine. The device was designed to tally votes cast not by citizens but by legislators, who previously had to shout “aye!” or “nay!” while a scribe tallied their votes by hand.

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Thomas Kelly // WikiCommons

1870: Fifteenth Amendment ratified

Five years after the Civil War ended legitimized enslavement, African Americans still lived in a state of citizenship limbo. That changed—sort of—in 1870 when the Fifteenth Amendment granted the vote to all men without regard to “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The guarantee would prove hollow for most formerly enslaved persons as the ruling class in the Southern states quickly moved to regain control and disenfranchise what they considered their former “property.”

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1877: Georgia institutes poll tax

In 1877, the state of Georgia pioneered one of the most infamous voting barriers in American history when it became the first state to charge a poll tax as a prerequisite of voting. The move signaled the beginning of a nearly century-long effort by Southern states to ensure that the overwhelming majority of Black citizens would never get to exercise the right to vote afforded to them by the Fifteenth Amendment. Poll taxes also disenfranchised legions of poor whites, and they were levied by some northern states like Pennsylvania, as well.

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Siegel, Cooper & Co.–Democratic platform, T17373 U.S. Copyright Office // WikiCommons

1881: The ‘voting apparatus’ debuts

In 1881, a Chicago inventor named Anthony C. Beranek patented a “voting apparatus,” a machine he hoped would eliminate ballot-box stuffing and other election fraud. Although it was certainly not the first contraption designed to change the way votes were cast, it holds the distinction of being the first voting machine ever used in a general election.

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1898: The gear-and-lever voting machine is unveiled

In the late 1890s, a man named Alfred J. Gillespie designed an expensive but reliable gear-and-lever voting machine, which sped up the voting process, kept a running tally, and even included a curtain for privacy. Its first use was in an 1898 town election in Rochester, New York, and from there became the gold standard of American voting. Gillespie’s design was manufactured well into the 1960s.

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United States Library of Congress // WikiCommons

1898: Louisiana enacts first grandfather clause

Two years after the Plessy v. Ferguson decision ushered in the era of Jim Crow segregation in the South, Louisiana became the first state to enact a grandfather clause, a strategy other Southern states would soon adopt. The move was designed to let poor whites bypass poll taxes and the infamous literacy tests that would follow by instituting a standard that no formerly enslaved person or child thereof could possibly meet. Any man could vote for free and avoid a literacy test as long as he could prove that he, his father, or his grandfather was eligible to vote before 1867—which, of course, no Black man could do, considering 1866 was the year the Civil Rights Bill first enfranchised African Americans.

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1908: Northern disenfranchisement on display

After Reconstruction, Southern states rendered their Black populations voiceless by keeping them out of the ballot boxes and criminalizing their daily lives by instituting so-called “black codes.” But Northern governments were not above blatantly disenfranchising the people they or their white majorities deemed undesirable, either. In 1908, for example, New York City officials, who assumed Jewish immigrants would vote for socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs, scheduled voter registrations only on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath, as well as one on a Monday, which just so happened to coincide with the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur.

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W.R. Ross, Washington D.C. /Library of Congress // WikiCommons

1913: Seventeenth Amendment grants direct election of US senators

As mandated by the Constitution, state legislatures—not American citizens—elected U.S. senators for the first 125 years of the country’s history. Several direct-election movements emerged and failed, but by the end of the 19th century, extended vacancies, conflicts of interest, and other problems in Senate elections had become too big to ignore. In 1913, the Seventeenth Amendment empowered the people to directly elect Senators for the first time in history.

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1920: Nineteenth Amendment grants women’s suffrage

The hard work put in by several generations of bold and resilient suffragists finally paid off in 1920 when the Nineteenth Amendment granted women the right to vote. For the first time in history, and more than half a century after Black men were first enfranchised, 50% of the population was no longer excluded from American democracy on the basis of gender.

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National Photo Company Collection // WikiCommons

1924: Indian Citizenship Act

Native Americans were not recognized as American citizens until 1924. The passage of the Indian Citizenship Act granted citizenship and the right to vote to every Native American born in the country; however, states controlled elections, and many Native Americans found themselves barred from voting anyway.

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Library of Congress // Picryl

1952: McCarran-Walter Act lifts ban on Asian citizenship

Before 1952, immigrants from Western and Northern Europe were heavily favored over Eastern European and Asian immigrants. The McCarran-Walter Act lifted a long-standing ban on Asians immigrating to the United States, becoming citizens, and voting.

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1961: Twenty-Third Amendment gives DC residents the vote

Until 1961, residents of Washington D.C. could not vote in general elections unless they were lawfully registered in a state. The Twenty-Third Amendment changed that and paved the way for residents of the nation’s capital to cast their votes.

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1961: First punch-card ballot system

Although punch-card technology had been around for decades, it changed the way people voted with the invention of the Coyle Vote Recorder in 1961. The new system made casting and counting votes easier, but it was a harbinger of things to come. Half a century later, phrases like “hanging chads” would be forever synonymous with punch-card failures in the most controversial elections in modern American history.

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U.S. Government // WikiCommons

1962: Poll taxes are outlawed

A century after the Emancipation Proclamation, the Twenty-Fourth Amendment went a long way to fulfilling the promise made in vain with the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870. The poll tax, still in practice in five Southern states, was outlawed.

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The Library of Congress // Flickr

1965: Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights

Some of the most historic moments of the Civil Rights movement came from three events that took place over the course of three weeks in Alabama. First, peaceful Civil Rights activists marching for voting rights across the Edmund Pettus Bridge were beaten back and brutalized by police on national television in what came to be known as Bloody Sunday. The incident compelled Martin Luther King Jr. to take part in a symbolic march two days later, which was then followed by a 25,000-strong final march that compelled President Johnson to finally take action.

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Cecil Stoughton White House Press Office // WIkiCommons

1965: Voting Rights Act

A century after the Civil War ended, the violence, terrorism, discrimination, and disenfranchisement that characterized Black life in the South came to a head when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. The legislation delivered in substance what the Fifteenth Amendment had promised in theory. Thanks to the efforts of generations of tireless Civil Rights activists, some of the biggest barriers to voting came tumbling down. Voter intimidation and mechanisms like literacy tests were outlawed in the most significant federal intervention in state-run elections since Reconstruction.

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1970: Richard Nixon extends Voting Rights Act

Originally designed to run for five years, the most successful voting rights initiative in American history was set to expire in 1970. Instead, President Richard Nixon extended the Voting Rights Act for five more years.

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U.S.Government // WikiCommons

1971: Twenty-Sixth Amendment lowers voting age

With the Vietnam War raging in full force and millions of young people fuming over the fact that they could be drafted before being allowed to cast ballots, public outcry led to the passage of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment. The addition effectively lowered the voting age from 21 to 18.

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1975: Gerald Ford extends the Voting Rights Act

The resignation of President Richard Nixon landed Gerald Ford in the Oval Office, and by 1975 Nixon’s extension of the Voting Rights Act was set to expire; however, like his predecessor, Ford extended the act—this time by seven more years. In 1982, Ronald Reagan again extended the Voting Rights Act, this time for 25 additional years. Black Civil Rights activists present at the signing of the extension noted that it was only after persistent work on their part that Reagan had decided to endorse the measure and that the extension of the Voting Rights Act would be meaningless if it wasn’t enforced.

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U.S. National Archives and Records Administration // WikiCommons

1984: Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act

President Reagan signed another piece of legislation that extended the vote to even more Americans. The Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act required polling places to make their facilities accessible to seniors or those with disabilities during all federal elections.

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1986: Uniformed and Overseas Absentee Voting Act

The Uniformed and Overseas Absentee Voting Act extended the right to participate in American democracy beyond the borders of the country. The act required all states and territories to, among other protections, allow military service members, their families, and citizens living abroad to register to vote and receive absentee ballots.

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White House // WikiCommons

1993: National Voter Registration Act

Bill Clinton signed the National Voter Registration Act into law to make voting easier in several ways. The key provision allowed people to register to vote when they applied for a driver’s license or public assistance.

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Creative Commons // WikiCommons

1996: Voting machine for the blind and illiterate

Ronald J. Harp Jr. invented a voting machine in 1996 that used audio to enfranchise those who couldn’t read or who were visually impaired. The machine could be used to cast votes for people and ballot issues.

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Alessandro Pietri // Shutterstock

2000: American citizens in territories denied voting rights

The First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2000 that residents of America’s territories—Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands—could not vote in general elections. The same ruling had been made in 1994, even though the millions of people who live in the combined territories are American citizens.

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2002: Help America Vote Act

The 2000 presidential election between George Bush and Al Gore became embroiled in controversy after the two candidates were separated by less than 2,000 votes in Florida, whose electoral votes would decide the election. Bush’s tight lead triggered an automatic recount of votes in the state, leading to judicial conflict over the winner of the election and the method of recounting the votes. Ultimately, the Supreme Court sided with Bush in a decision still contested today.

The 2000 election put the fragility of America’s voting system on display for the world to see. Two years later, Congress responded with the Help America Vote Act. The act included sweeping reforms that mandated and funded improvements to the machines, mechanisms, and procedures involved in America’s elections.

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2006: Congress extends Section 5 of Voting Rights Act

Congress again extended Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in 2006 for another 25 years. The heart of the landmark legislation, Section 5 prevented suspect jurisdictions from changing their voting laws without first submitting the changes to the Justice Department or the D.C. District Court.

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Brendan Hoffman // Getty Images

2009: Al Franken wins Minnesota by 312 votes

Comedian Al Franken won a Senate seat in Minnesota after the longest contested recount in history, which lasted nearly eight months. In the end, Franken won by just 312 votes out of nearly 3 million cast, paving the way for a 60-seat Democratic supermajority in the Senate. Although the race in and of itself didn’t impact voting in America, unsubstantiated fraud allegations would provide justification for a new movement to restrict voting and exclude large segments of the population from the franchise.

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Nancy Pelosi // Flickr

2010: Midterm elections signal new era in voting

Although Democrats held the Senate in the 2010 midterm election, Tea Party-bolstered Republicans engineered a route into the House of Representatives and swept into power in statehouses across the country. Almost immediately, Republican governors and state legislators began passing seemingly unconnected laws that, when put together, had the potential to disenfranchise millions of immigrants, ex-convicts, students, minorities, and other citizens who tend to vote Democrat. Within a year, 38 states had introduced legislation designed to reduce the number of people who could vote.

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Stan Honda/AFP // GettyImages

2011: The voter ID law era begins

In the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, many states began proposing or passing strict voter ID laws. With virtually no exceptions, these measures were devised by Republican lawmakers, usually under the guise of preventing voter fraud and often without offering evidence that fraud existed. Many of the new restrictions disproportionately affected poor people and minorities.

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Ben Skylar // GettyImages

2012: Texas v. Holder

In 2011, Texas passed one of the most restrictive voter ID laws in America. Since the state could not show that the law would not discriminate against minorities, a federal court rejected the law under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

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UpstateNYer // WikiCommons

2013: Shelby County v. Holder

Shelby County, Alabama, filed suit in 2013, asking a federal court to render Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional. The case went to the Supreme Court, which in 2013 delivered one of the most controversial decisions in history when it ruled in favor of Shelby County and overturned key portions of the Voting Rights Act, including the crucial Section 5 provision. Almost immediately, Texas put its previously blocked voter ID law into effect. Within three years, nearly 1,000 polling places closed, a disproportionate number of which served poor and minority communities.

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AFGE // Flickr

2016: New restrictions pile up

In 2016, fourteen states put new voting restrictions in place for the first time for a presidential election. Many of the states would have otherwise been limited by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

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2017: More laws target voters

North Dakota and Arkansas passed voter ID laws in 2017, and a ballot initiative ushered in a restrictive law in Missouri. Also that year, New Hampshire, Indiana, Iowa, and Georgia added new restrictions to existing laws.

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2018: New voting restrictions reach half the country

Six states enacted new voting laws in 2018 or enhanced existing ones. That brought to 25 the tally of states that passed laws making it harder to vote since the 2010 midterm elections.

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Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur’s Photostream // Flickr

2018: Supreme Court approves voter purges

In yet another major decision split 5-4 along ideological lines, the Supreme Court in 2018 ruled that Ohio could proceed with an aggressive purge of its voter registration rolls. A key battleground state, Ohio officials began removing from its rolls anyone who didn’t participate in some form of election activity for two years. Critics argued the move, which provided a model that other states soon followed, served no functional purpose, defied the National Voter Registration Act, and unduly harmed poor people, minorities, veterans, and seniors.

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2018: Florida removes criminal disenfranchisement

Also in 2018, in a different battleground state, Florida residents voted to approve Amendment 4, which gave more than 1 million ex-felons the right to vote in Florida. Criminal disenfranchisement is as old as the state of Florida, and, as with most states, the practice disproportionately affects minorities. In the Sunshine State before Amendment 4, criminal disenfranchisement had barred more than 1 in 5 otherwise eligible Black adults from voting. Since the law went into effect, Republicans in the state have tacked on rules to make it difficult, if not impossible, for ex-felons to know if they’re allowed to vote.

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2019: Supreme Court agrees to hear key gerrymandering case

After years of ducking and punting on partisan gerrymandering cases, the Supreme Court finally agreed to hear a major partisan districting case. In a 5-4 decision reached in 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that partisan gerrymandering is outside the purview of federal courts, claiming they held no constitutional authority to reallocate power between the two political parties or limit or influence districting decisions.

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2020: Supreme Court unanimously rules against faithless electors

In 2020, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that states can require members of the electoral college to vote for the candidate who wins the popular vote. In 32 states and Washington D.C., presidential electors are required by law to vote for the popular vote winner, enforceable through monetary fines or removal from the role. In the U.S., it is actually the Electoral College that decides the presidency. In the majority opinion, Justice Elena Kagan wrote that a state may instruct electors “that they have no ground for reversing the vote of millions of its citizens.” Supporters of these established state laws believed they insulated the Electoral College from corruption, while opponents believed electors should have the ability to vote their conscience.

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2020: Mail-in voting soars during the COVID-19 pandemic

As stay-at-home orders swept the country starting in early 2020, the ability to vote from home became a matter of health and safety. While some states stuck to traditional ways of voting, many others expanded vote-by-mail opportunities, including mailing every registered voter a ballot or an application for a ballot. Despite repeated false statements from Donald Trump that mail-in voting would enable mass election fraud, a staggering 43% of voters cast their ballots by mail, while 26% went for in-person early voting—another pandemic accommodation.

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Michael M. Santiago // Getty Images

2022: Redistricting controversies continue nationwide

Although the U.S. Constitution mandates that congressional districts be redrawn every ten years after new Census data is collected—to keep up with fluctuations in population and changes in political leanings—the practice of redistricting has continued to be fraught. Redistricting woes in 2022 have ranged from anger and confusion to accusations of gerrymandering and deliberate, race-based disenfranchisement. In New York state, as districts were shuffled around, congressional colleagues who had long worked side-by-side were placed in competition with each other. In Tennessee, critics have decried the breaking up of Nashville into three districts, each Republican-leaning. The redistricting essentially replaced the city’s former representation as a single, Democrat-majority district. Other states, like Texas, are embroiled in lawsuits that allege racial gerrymandering by Republican legislators.

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