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Context of '1789: Founders Connect Right to Vote in National Elections to State Voting Law'

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The British colonies in North America carry over the practice of “civil death,” a disenfranchisement stemming from ancient Greek, Roman, Germanic, and Anglo-Saxon law and enforced against some convicted criminals. English law developed the similar punishment of “attainder,” which, law professor Debra Parkes will later write, “resulted in forfeiture of all property, inability to inherit or devise property, and loss of all civil rights.” Those civil rights will encompass the right to vote. When the first British settlement in America is established in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, the concept of “civil death” is carried over. The concept continues into the British colonies that will become Canada and the United States. [ProCon, 10/19/2010]

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Lawmakers in the British colonies of North America debate whether voting is a right or a privilege under the law. Voting, like many other civil rights, can be denied to convicted criminals under the ancient concept of “civil death” and the English legal concept of “attainder” (see 1607-1776). History and social policy professor Alexander Keyssar will later write that the various colonies have “no firm principles governing colonial voting rights, and suffrage [voting] laws accordingly were quite varied.… In practice, moreover, the enforcement of application of suffrage laws was uneven and dependent on local circumstances.” Many American colonists argue that voting is a privilege and not a right, and thusly can be granted or taken away by the government. Keyssar will write: “Yet there was a problem with this vision of suffrage as a right… there was no way to argue that voting was a right or a natural right without opening a Pandora’s box. If voting was a natural right, then everyone should possess it.” Eventually, the Founders define voting as a constitutional issue. Keyssar will write, “Implicit in this treatment was the notion that suffrage requirements ought to be durable and difficult to change.” [ProCon, 10/19/2010]

Entity Tags: Alexander Keyssar

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The US Constitution connects voting in national (federal) elections and state voting law. Under the old Articles of Confederation, ratified in 1777, states retained control over citizen voting rights, including the ability of a state government to take the right of voting away from a citizen under certain circumstances (see 1764 - 1776). History and social policy professor Alexander Keyssar will later write that “the Constitution of the United States forged a link between state suffrage rules and the right to vote in national elections: those who participated in elections for the ‘most numerous branch of the State Legislature‘… there was no formal debate about the possibility of a national standard more inclusive than the laws already prevailing in the states. Indeed, the records of the federal convention and state constitutional conventions suggest that most members of the new nation’s political leadership did not favor a more democratic franchise.” Ultimately, the right to vote is codified by a compromise between the various authors of the Constitution. The right of American citizenship, as controlled by the federal government, does not necessarily grant the right to vote, which is held primarily by the states. [ProCon, 10/19/2010]

Entity Tags: Alexander Keyssar

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Kentucky’s State Constitution is ratified. It provides that, under Kentucky law, citizens can have their right to vote taken away upon being “convicted of bribery, perjury, forgery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” [State Constitution of Kentucky, 1792 pdf file; ProCon, 10/19/2010]

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

After two states, Kentucky and Vermont, include language in their constitutions allowing state officials to strip citizens of the right to vote upon conviction for various felonies and other serious crimes (see April 19, 1792 and July 9, 1793), a large number of other states follow suit.
Ohio - In 1802, Ohio leads the way, including language in its newly ratified state constitution that gives the legislature the right to “exclude from the privilege of voting” any citizen “convicted of bribery, perjury, or otherwise infamous crime.”
Louisiana - In 1812, Louisiana includes language in its newly ratified state constitution that disenfranchises citizens “convicted of bribery, perjury, forgery, or other high crimes or misdemeanors.” The Louisiana Constitution also disenfranchises anyone convicted of participating “in a duel with deadly weapons against a citizen of Louisiana.” In 1845, Louisiana includes language in its constitution to disenfranchise a citizen “under interdiction” or “under conviction of any crime punishable with hard labor.”
Indiana - In 1816, Indiana ratifies its constitution, which grants the General Assembly the right “to exclude from the privilege of electing, or being elected, any person convicted of an infamous crime.”
Mississippi - In 1817, Mississippi’s newly ratified state constitution allows for the disenfranchisement of citizens “convicted of bribery, perjury, forgery, or other high crimes or misdemeanors.”
Connecticut - Connecticut ratifies its state constitution in 1818. That instrument precludes from voting “those convicted of bribery, forgery, perjury, dueling, fraudulent bankruptcy, theft, or other offense for which an infamous punishment is inflicted.”
Alabama - Alabama ratifies its constitution in 1819, granting itself the right to disenfranchise “those who shall hereafter be convicted of bribery, perjury, forgery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Missouri - In 1820, Missouri’s newly ratified constitution gives Missouri’s General Assembly the right to disenfranchise “all persons convicted of bribery, perjury, or other infamous crime.” Citizens convicted of electoral bribery lose their right to vote for 10 years.
New York - New York ratifies its constitution in 1821. Like Indiana, it bars citizens from voting if convicted of “infamous crimes.” In 1846, New York rewrites the constitution to strip voting rights from those “who have been or may be convicted of bribery, larceny, or of any other infamous crime… and for wagering on elections.”
Virginia - Virginia ratifies its constitution in 1830. It follows New York and Indiana in barring voting by those “convicted of an infamous crime.”
Delaware - Delaware’s constitution, ratified in 1831, bars citizens from voting “as a punishment of crime,” and specifically disenfranchises citizens convicted of a felony.
Tennessee - In 1834, Tennessee’s newly ratified constitution bars those convicted of “infamous crimes” from voting.
Florida - Florida’s constitution is ratified in 1838, seven years before Florida becomes a state. Under Florida’s constitution, the General Assembly can disenfranchise citizens “who shall have been, or may thereafter be, convicted of bribery, perjury, forgery, or other high crime or misdemeanor.… [T]he General Assembly shall have power to exclude from… the right of suffrage, all persons convicted of bribery, perjury, or other infamous crimes.”
Rhode Island - Rhode Island ratifies its constitution in 1842, and bans citizens from voting once “convicted of bribery or of any crime deemed infamous at common law, until expressly restored to the right of suffrage by an act of General Assembly.”
New Jersey - Like Rhode Island, New Jersey’s 1844 constitution disenfranchises convicted felons “unless pardoned or restored by law to the right of suffrage.” The constitution specifically disenfranchises those “convicted of bribery.”
Texas - The Texas Constitution, ratified in 1845, states, “Laws shall be made to exclude… from the right of suffrage those who shall hereafter be convicted of bribery, perjury, forgery, or other high crimes.”
Iowa - Iowa’s constitution, ratified in 1846, disenfranchises citizens “convicted of any infamous crime.”
Wisconsin - Wisconsin’s newly ratified constitution, adopted in 1848, bars citizens “convicted of bribery, larceny, or any infamous crime” from voting, and specifically forbids citizens convicted of “betting on elections” from casting votes.
California - Like Florida, California adopts its constitution before it becomes a state. Its 1849 constitution strips voting rights from “those who shall hereafter be convicted of bribery, perjury, forgery, or other high crimes” as well as “those convicted of any infamous crime.” California becomes a state in 1850.
Maryland - Maryland’s constitution, ratified in 1851, bars from voting citizens “convicted of larceny or other infamous crime” unless pardoned by the governor. Anyone convicted of election bribery is “forever disqualified from voting.”
Minnesota - The 1857 ratification of Minnesota’s constitution gives that state the right to disenfranchise citizens “convicted of treason or felony until restored to civil rights.” The constitution comes into effect when Minnesota becomes a state in 1858.
Oregon - Oregon ratifies its state constitution in 1857, two years before it becomes a state. More strict than many other states, its constitution disenfranchises citizens “convicted of crimes punishable by imprisonment.” [ProCon, 10/19/2010]

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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