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One of the most important rights of American citizens is the franchise—the right to vote. Originally under the Constitution, only white male citizens over the age of 21 were eligible to vote. This shameful injustice has been corrected and voting rights have been extended several times over the course of our history. Today, citizens over the age of 18 cannot be denied the right to vote on the basis of race, religion, sex, disability, or sexual orientation. In every state except North Dakota, citizens must register to vote, and laws regarding the registration process vary by State.
The path to full voting rights for all American citizens was long and often challenging. The franchise was first extended to African Americans under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, passed during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War. These amendments provided that all male citizens, regardless of their race, must receive equal treatment under the law and not be deprived of their rights without due process. The Fifteenth Amendment is specifically dedicated to protecting the right of all citizens to vote, regardless of race.
For practical purposes, this was not the end of the voting rights struggle for African Americans. Because of widespread discrimination in many states, including the use of poll taxes, grandfather clauses, and literacy tests, and other more violent means, African Americans were not assured basic voting rights until President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
Women were denied the right to vote until 1920, when the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified. Prior to that, women had only been able to vote in select States.
Federal elections occur every two years, on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Every member of the House of Representatives and about one-third of the Senate is up for reelection in any given election year. A presidential election is held every fourth year.
Federal elections are administered by State and local governments, and the specifics of how elections are conducted differ between States. The Constitution and laws of the United States grant States wide latitude in how they administer elections.