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Voting Throughout History

By Mel Barnett 

Voting is arguably the most important system for practicing democracy in the U.S. The process of voting is meant to select representatives most favored by voters. This makes the method of counting votes significant in ensuring accuracy. The electorate itself is important — when groups in the U.S.  are not permitted to vote, they cannot elect representatives who will fight for them.  

“If democracy is defined as the consent of the governed who vote in elections and elect officials to make decisions for them, it’s essential to get the maximum amount of participation in the democracy,” says former Republican state legislator Bill Ballenger. “You want everybody who’s eligible to vote to be able to vote.”  

The electorate looks a lot different today than it did in the later 18th century when only around 6% of the population was eligible to vote: white men older than 21 who owned land. And just like the electorate has expanded, so has the ways in which America votes.   

In Michigan, voting is now more accessible than ever before. Same-day registration is now allowed in Michigan, and people can now vote absentee for any reason.  

“Same day registration to vote, in other words somebody can walk in on election day who has never been registered to vote before, they can register to vote and vote,” says Ballenger. “That’s never been possible in the state of Michigan. These are huge changes.”  

On opposite sides of the country – in Maine and California – controversial changes in voting are making waves. Ranked choice voting in Maine and top-two primaries in California are both designed to elect more moderate politicians that appeal to a wider range of voters.   

The future of voting in the U.S. is unpredictable, but a look back on the past reveals that the nation has come a long way in how citizens select their elected officials. 

Melanie Barnett is the editor of Detroiter magazine. 

1634: Massachusetts is the first state to elect its governor using paper ballots. 

1776: State legislatures facilitate voting for those eligible: white men age 21 and older who own land. 

1788: Electoral college is established to elect the president of the United States. 

1870: The 15th amendment gives black men the right to vote. States implement literacy tests and poll taxes among other methods to prevent the amendment from taking effect. 

1896: 39 out of 45 states use secret ballots, first implemented in Australia, which are printed by the government and marked by voters in secret. This major change revolutionizes how we vote today. 

1920: The 19th amendment grants women the right to vote, although discriminatory tactics still prevent many women of color from voting. 

1924: The Indian Citizenship Act grants Native Americans citizenship and the right to vote. 

1965: Voting Rights Act of 1965 is implemented to protect voter registration and voting rights for racial minorities. 

1971: The age requirement for voting is amended from 21 to 18. 

2000: Hanging chad controversy during the George W. Bush vs. Al Gore presidential election leads to the Helping America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) which eliminates nearly all punch-card and lever-based voting methods 

2011: California replaces traditional party primaries with a top-two primary system. The two candidates who receive the most votes in the primary move on to the general election, regardless of party. 

2016: Maine becomes first to adopt ranked choice voting statewide and implements it in 2018: Voters rank candidates in order of preference instead of only choosing one. 

2019: New York City adopts ranked choice voting to be implemented in 2021.