Expanding Voting Rights

One of the cornerstones of American democracy is the right to vote. Yet the history of voting rights in the United States is complicated.
Grade Level

For several decades, voting in most states was limited to white male landowners, called freeholders. Gradually, the franchise, or right to vote, expanded to include non-landowners, then African-American men, then women, and eventually people as young as 18. The process had its twists and turns; it was far from a straight line of ever-expanding voting rights. And it involved the federal government taking a larger role in defining who made up the electorate, or people who could vote. This series traces that complicated process.

Lessons 2 through 5 draw on reports from the NBC Learn archives. Some are primary sources—news reports from the period that students are exploring as well as some historical documents. These primary sources will help students understand how people at the time were thinking about events. Other NBC Learn materials are secondary sources—news reports that look back on some of the key events in voting rights history and tie them to more current events. These sources help students see how historical events reverberate and affect their own lives. All videos can be found here.


Expanding Voting Rights is a series of five lessons:


Lesson 1 The Early Republic has students examine what the Constitution did—and did not—say about voting rights; then has them explore the first major expansion of voting rights: the inclusion of white men who did not own property.

Lesson 2 African Americans Face and Fight Obstacles to Voting begins with the Reconstruction amendments to the Constitution, the first time the power of the states to set their own requirements was limited. But the story of African-American suffrage unfolded over the next 100 years. In Lesson 2, students learn about the obstacles that prevented African Americans in many states from exercising their right to vote, and their fight to dismantle those obstacles.

Lesson 3 The Voting Rights Act, 1965 and beyond focuses on the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Students explore why it was necessary, and then look at recent attempts to end its protections.

Lesson 4 Women’s Suffrage returns to the past, with students exploring how women won the right to vote, another historical moment in which there was change at the national level.

Lesson 5 Finally, The 26th Amendment has students exploring the Constitutional Amendment that granted 18-year-olds the right to vote.