2024 Equity Challenge Day 3: Your Right to Vote: How it Came to Be and How to Exercise It

Too many people struggled, suffered and died to make it possible for every American to exercise their right to vote.

John Lewis

American civil rights leader and politician
▶ LISTEN TO DAY 3 – 10:53

This November, millions of people will have the opportunity to exercise their right to vote in the presidential election. However, that opportunity is not equitable for everyone and throughout history has excluded marginalized groups including people of color, immigrants, women, people experiencing homelessness, people living with a disability, people who are incarcerated and low-income populations.

When voting was first introduced as a practice in the United States, it was limited to specific individuals, generally white men who owned property, and the Constitution of the United States gave power to states to set voting requirements. By 1776, at least 60 percent of adult white males were able to vote, and a few states allowed free Black men to vote. Additionally, New Jersey included unmarried and widowed women who owned property in the right to vote.

  • In 1870, following the Civil War, the 15th amendment was ratified which allowed people the right to vote regardless of race.
  • Fifty years later, in 1920, the 19th amendment was ratified allowing women to vote. However, even with these amendments in place there were still many barriers, including poll taxes and mis-leading literacy tests (click here for an example of a 1965 Alabama Literacy test) that prevented voting for certain populations.
  • In 1965, a series of marches were held as part of the civil rights movement, in an effort to reinstate voting rights for African Americans. Following the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act which banned racial discriminatory practices in voting.

Even after overcoming the barriers to voter registration, voters may still struggle at the polls due to voter ID laws, restrictions on Sunday voting, long wait times, polling locations, and rejection of mail-in ballots, all of which disproportionately harm voters of color. America Ferrera, an Actress and Political Activist, named some of these in an article focused on the state of our democracy in 2018:

“Voting is the only Constitutional right that we have to register for, that we have to sign up for. [You] don’t have to register to exercise your right to free speech, or register to exercise your right to free assembly, [but] voting, for so many people there are a ton of obstacles in the way. [There have been] last-minute, blatant attempts to suppress votes—and mostly people of color—and this is not new to our history… It’s an illness, and our democracy cannot survive this way.”

Since 2018, Michigan has made strides in eliminating barriers to the ballot box by implementing policies passed by citizen-led ballot proposals that have expanded voter rights. Many of these reforms are now fully in place including;

  • Access to absentee ballots for all voters regardless of the reason.
  • Allowing for nine days of early in-person voting before elections.
  • Online and same day voter registration.
  • Expansion of the types of acceptable forms of voter identification.

While these reforms are a win for voters here in our state, they stand out among a surge in policies meant to suppress the vote elsewhere in the country. According to the Brennan Center at least 14 states enacted 17 restrictive voting laws in 2023, all of which will be in effect for the 2024 general election. At the federal level things don’t fare much better- jurisdictions that were stripped of protections in Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act almost a decade ago now have the fastest growing turnout gap between white and nonwhite voters. It was the Supreme Court decision back in 2013 that effectively gutted Section 5 in Shelby County v. Holder that has cleared the way for states to pass laws for measures like redistricting, changing poll locations and adding restrictive voter ID requirements without federal review.

Access to the ballot box remains an issue for many here in Michigan, home to diverse populations. Voting materials have been translated into Bengali, Arabic and Spanish but gaps still remain in the availability of translated ballots and on- site translation services on Election Day.

Accessibility also remains a factor throughout our region for those with a disability. Detroit Disability Power (DDP) conducted small-scale audits beginning in 2018 to determine if polling places were adhering to access laws for people with disabilities. More than 260 polling places in 15 jurisdictions found that only 16% were fully accessible.

As we head into a busy election year that will at times feel overwhelming for many, it is important to note that advocacy at the federal and state level must not stop in strengthening voter protections for those who face the biggest barriers to this fundamental right. Here in Michigan, we will need to safeguard the proposals now signed into law and continue building on the work that empowers more Michiganders to participate in our democracy. At the federal level, the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was recently re- introduced that would restore the critical protections in Section 5 of Voting Rights Act. With the legislation still waiting for a formal hearing it is unlikely that it will pass before the end of the year, but we encourage you to reach out to our U.S. Senators and ask them to support it.

It’s crucial that we all take action to protect and expand voting rights for all Americans. Here are a few ways you can get involved:

  • Educate yourself about voting rights issues and the history of voter suppression in the United States.
  • Volunteer with organizations working to register voters, provide voter education, and combat voter suppression efforts.
  • Advocate for policy changes at the local, state, and federal levels to make voting more accessible, including supporting measures to expand early voting, eliminate voter ID laws, and ensure equitable access to polling places.
  • Encourage your friends, family members, and community members to exercise their right to vote and help them overcome any barriers they may face in doing so. If you reside in Michigan, visit the Michigan Voter Information Center to check your registration status and get more information on your local elections.
  • Have your voice heard and commit to be a voter by also taking the pledge or better yet we challenge you to find 3 friends to commit to taking the pledge with you, so they are voter ready. Take the pledge today!

Together, we can ensure that every voice is heard and that our democracy remains strong and vibrant.




Reflect And Share

  1. How did today’s content impact you?
  2. What barriers to voting do you feel exist today? If you could write legislation to eliminate these barriers, what would you say?
  3. What steps might you take to ensure that those in your community (work, school, neighborhood) are able to exercise their right to vote in the upcoming election?


Start the conversation. Send the tweet. Share your story. Make the Facebook post. Sharing what you learn and experience with your family, friends and co-workers is the first step toward allyship.

Join thousands in conversation by using hashtag #RiseToTheChallenge.