The Power of the Vote: A Brief History of Voting Rights in America

March 3, 2020

By Eliza E. Canty-Jones

A banner with the slogan, “We Demand an Amendment to the U.S. Constitution Infranchising Women,” adorns a car carrying Margaret Fay Whittemore (left) and Mary Gertrude Fendall (right) during a September 23, 1916, woman suffrage campaign in Pendleton, Oregon. Whittemore was a Congressional Union-National Woman’s Party organizer for election campaigns in Washington State in 1914 and 1916. Library of Congress, 159019

The United States is predicated on the notion of self-rule — the idea that, individually and collectively, the people are the best determiners of the structures that should shape their society. In our nation, voting is an essential tool in enacting that ideal of governance both of the people and by the people. Fierce contests regarding who has access to the vote — that is, to suffrage — have characterized our nation and state since their founding. Although those debates and their outcomes have impacted the lives of Native people in the United States, they are separate from tribal nations’ inherent sovereignty.

The year 2020 marks two significant anniversaries in the history of American voting rights: the sesquicentennial of ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment and the centennial of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. The Oregon Historical Society is marking the latter anniversary with a powerful new exhibit, Nevertheless, They Persisted: Women’s Voting Rights and the 19th Amendment, which considers the deeply intertwined histories of citizenship, racism, and the state and national struggles for woman suffrage. In honor of that work, we offer here a brief overview of some significant events in the history of voting rights in Oregon and the United States.

In 1912, all Oregon women who were citizens or eligible for citizenship gained the right to vote in local, state, and national elections. The “Suffrage Amendment” to the Oregon State Constitution reads as follows:

Section 2 of Article II of the Constitution of the State of Oregon shall be and hereby is amended to read as follows:

Section 2. In all elections not otherwise provided for by this Constitution, every citizen of the United States, of the age of twenty-one years and upwards, who shall have resided in the State during the six months immediately preceding such election, and every person of foreign birth of the age of twenty-one years and upwards, who shall have resided in this State during the six months immediately preceding such election, and shall have declared his or her intention to become a citizen of the United States one year preceding such election, conformably to the laws of the United States on the subject of naturalization, shall be entitled to vote at all elections authorized by law.

1912 handbill advocating for women’s right to vote in Oregon. OHS Research Library, Mss 1534.
This 1912 handbill, published by the Oregon chapter of the College Equal Suffrage League, was part of the successful state campaign to give women the right to vote. The handbill lists all the states in the United States were women had the right to vote, along with other countries where they exercised that right, and asks, “Why Not in Oregon?” OHS Research Library, MSS 1534.

Essentially, this text replicated almost exactly the Section 2 of Article II as originally written by the 1857 Constitutional Convention. The significant changes were the removal of the phrase “white male” from before the first instance of the word citizen, the replacement of “white male” with person in the section regarding those of foreign birth, and the addition of “or her” before the word intention.

The ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution had already negated the earlier racial restriction in this section of the Oregon Constitution. The Fifteenth Amendment reads, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Oregonian, November 8, 1916.
On November 8, 1916, the Oregonian published a photograph of Amanda Garvin, formerly enslaved in the American South, exercising her right to suffrage in Portland, Oregon, where she then lived. The newspaper noted: “Mrs. Garvin is much interested in all questions that concern women and particularly those that pertain to the women of her race.”

The combination of these two changes to state and national constitutions meant that both black and white women in Oregon were eligible to register to vote and to take part in the franchise. Evidence demonstrates that they did so with great enthusiasm. As woman suffrage scholar and exhibit advisor Dr. Kimberly Jensen writes, for example, after the 1912 victory, “Lizzie Koontz Weeks… organized black women to empower them to be successful voters and was an early candidate for local party office.” In 1915, Marian B. Towne and Kathryn Clarke became the first two women to serve in the Oregon Legislature.

Note the significance of citizenship in the text of Section 2, Article II of Oregon’s Constitution, including that “the laws of the United States” dictated whether a person could become a citizen.

The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has guaranteed citizenship to all persons born in the United States since its ratification in 1868. From 1870 until 1952, however, U.S. federal law restricted first-generation Asian immigrants from gaining citizenship. George Williams, U.S. Senator from Oregon, led the campaign for this restriction, which lawmakers codified in revisions to the Naturalization Act of 1790.

Chinatown, Portland, Oregon, ca. 1910. OHS Research Library, OrHi 9067, ba018014
This photograph shows residents of Portland’s Chinatown in about 1910. While the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granted citizenship to all persons born in the United States, between 1870 and 1952, U.S. federal law restricted first-generation Asian immigrants from gaining citizenship. OHS Research Library, OrHi 9067, ba018014

The United States did not confer its citizenship on all Indigenous people until 1924, through passage of the Indian Citizenship Act. Gaining U.S. citizenship gave legal voting access to local, state, and national elections to Indigenous people in Oregon; however, U.S. citizenship had, and has, no bearing on tribal sovereignty and governance.

Tribes in Oregon, and across the United States, are sovereign, meaning that they govern themselves. The U.S. Constitution recognizes these unique sovereign nations, which have government-to-government relationships with each other, with Oregon state government, and with the U.S. government. Tribes make their own decisions about how their citizens participate in the creation and enforcement of laws and other policies.

There are nine federally recognized Tribes in Oregon: Burns Paiute Tribes; Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw; The Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community; Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation; Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Indian Reservation; Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians; Coquille Indian Tribe; Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe; and Klamath Tribes.

Albany Evening Herald Literacy Test Law notice, November 6, 1924.
This notice published in the Albany, Oregon, “Evening Herald” provides details about the 1924 literacy test passed by Oregon voters to restrict voter participation. The Linn County Clerk noted that he was “not enthusiastic about the law” and that “men who cannot read and write often vote as intelligently as other citizens.”
KKK Hood, ca. 1920s, Oregon Historical Society
Widespread xenophobia during the 1920s in Oregon led to the rise of groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, which began organizing in the state in early 1921 and was a political force during the 1922 and 1924 elections. This hood worn by a KKK member in the 1920s is on display in OHS’s permanent exhibit, “Experience Oregon.”

In the same year that the federal government enacted the Indian Citizenship Act, Oregon voters overwhelmingly passed new restrictions on voting in the form of an English literacy requirement. Xenophobia was widespread during the 1920s in Oregon and across the nation, with the Ku Klux Klan increasing its visibility and influence. English-language requirements are only one tactic among many used to restrict and suppress voter participation.

Voter suppression efforts continue today, including through targeted ID laws, inadequate poll locations that cause long lines or confusion, purging of voter rolls, and gerrymandering. After ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, lawmakers enacted policies generally referred to as “Jim Crow laws” throughout the American South and in other regions, specifically targeting African American voters. In 1965, after decades of community organizing and lobbying of those in power, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act (VRA), significantly curbing states’ ability to suppress voters. The VRA outlawed, for example, literacy tests. Congress expanded the VRA in the 1970s and 1980s, but in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court severely limited the power of the VRA in its Shelby County v. Holder decision.

Abigail Scott Duniway outside voting precinct tent in 1912. OHS Research Library, Org. Lot 139, Oregonian 4599
Abigail Scott Duniway (center) stands outside a Precinct 10 voting tent in 1912, the first year women could exercise the right to vote in Oregon. Duniway campaigned for woman suffrage throughout the Pacific Northwest. OHS Research Library, Org. Lot 139, Oregonian 4599

In considering the power of a single person’s vote, many people are today debating the Electoral College, the process by which electors select the President and Vice President, as established in Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution. Debates about citizenship also continue, as evidenced by the Department of Justice’s recent establishment of a section dedicated to denaturalization cases. As always, we are all better able to engage in contemporary debates about the shape of our democracy, and the power of individuals and groups to determine its future, when we better understand the people, places, and events that have shaped our past. And, in 2020, there is no better way to understand that history than through OHS’s flagship exhibit, Nevertheless, They Persisted!

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