The Right to Vote

Today a man owns a jackass worth fifty dollars and he is entitled to vote; but before the next election the jackass dies. The man in the meantime has become more experienced, his knowledge of the principles of government, and his acquaintance with mankind, are more extensive, and he is therefore better qualified to make a proper selection of rulers—but the jackass is dead and the man cannot vote. Now gentlemen, pray inform me, in whom is the right of suffrage? In the man or in the jackass?

—Benjamin Franklin, The Casket, or Flowers of Literature, Wit and Sentiment (1828)

The Constitution, when it was ratified, did not guarantee anyone the right to vote, nor has any such guarantee been added since. The debates about suffrage in the Philadelphia Convention were brief, and the final document did very little to define the breadth of the franchise. Only Article I, Section 2 mentions voting directly: 

Article I, Section 2: The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States, and the Electors in each State shall have the Qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature.

The Virginia Plan had proposed that the members of the Lower House would be elected by “the people of the several states,” but did not specify any qualifications for the actual voting. The Committee of Detail then recommended that qualifications for suffrage in the House should be the same as the electors “of the most numerous branch of [the states’] own legislatures.” This effectively meant that states, rather than the new federal government, would set qualifications for voting. 

Some of the delegates did not immediately embrace this deference to the states’ individual judgment. When the Convention debated the provision on August 7, some thought it improper to grant this power to the states, and others wished to see even more robust property qualifications than this provision would guarantee.  James Wilson defended the choice: “This part of the report was well considered by the committee, and he did not think it could be changed for the better.  It was difficult to form any uniform rule of qualifications for all the states.”  He and others pointed out that the Framers would be inciting unnecessary enemies to the Constitution if people who could vote in local and state elections were disfranchised from voting in the national elections.  The upshot was that it would have been too difficult, even at this early juncture in American history, to find a universal rule that every state would have found acceptable. 

Two other provisions of the Constitution hinted at voting:

Article II, Section 1 stated that “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors” to choose the President. Again, the precise determination was left up to the states, but the role of voting by the people was at best oblique. Choosing the president by popular election, though it had a small group of adherents including James Wilson, never received serious consideration from the delegates. 

Finally, the Constitution offers the vague provision that “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government,” which seems to provide at least some assurance that a right to vote would be protected, again at the level of each state. Aside from these three provisions the Constitution was mute on the right to vote, but the document would form the foundation for the struggle to define the franchise in all that would follow.