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How Has Voting Changed?


For much of American history, voting qualifications were such that very few people actually had the power to vote. These qualifications have changed greatly since then to grant nearly all Americans this important democratic privilege. In the eighteenth century, the right to vote was reserved for wealthy white males over the age of 21 and in many cases, those that belonged to the accepted religion of their community. The reasoning was that these people were the only ones educated enough to make a wise decision—although women, the enslaved, and those without property certainly had a lot to say on the matters of the day. Today, through Constitutional Amendments, voting restrictions concerning gender, race, religious affiliation, and wealth have all been eliminated. The minimum age to vote is now 18. All voters must be citizens of the United States.

In this lesson, students will compare and contrast voting eligibility in the eighteenth century and today. They will also demonstrate and reflect on eighteenth century and twenty-first century voting procedures.


In this lesson, students:

  • Compare and contrast voting eligibility in the eighteenth century and today.
  • Participate in a voting exercise demonstrating differences in voting eligibility and procedures in the eighteenth century and today.
  • Discuss whether changes in voting procedures from the eighteenth century to today have made elections more fair.
  • Write a short reflection to demonstrate their understanding of changes of voting eligibility.


    Download Lesson Materials (PDF)

  • Primary Source of the Month image and analysis: The County Election by George Caleb Bingham
  • Modern-Day Voting Image (preferably one that shows people of different genders and races voting. Many news articles on voting contain images like this.)
  • Voting Rights Comparison Chart
  • Voter Eligibility Cards


  1. Display George Caleb Bingham's The County Election and discuss the painting with the students, using the Primary Source of the Month analysis as a guide. Note that this is a nineteenth-century image, but it illustrates many of the problems with eighteenth-century style voting. Focus student attention on the following aspects:
    • Only men are in line to vote.
    • The voting is not private.
    • The scene seems noisy and chaotic.
    • The man in the top hat in the center of the painting is trying to convince a man in line to vote for a particular candidate. The men in top hats might even be the candidates themselves, who were allowed to watch and listen to the voting.
    • In the bottom left corner, a man is drinking what is most likely alcohol. Sometimes candidates would "treat" voters by providing them with free food and beverages. One man may have had too much and is being carried by a friend.
    • The man serving drinks is black. He is unable to vote.
    • Voting day is a major community event.
  2. Display the modern-day voting photograph and discuss the photograph with the students. Focus student attention on the following aspects:
    • Voting is a now a secret and private responsibility.
    • Voting takes place in quiet locations, and people aren't allowed to try to convince you to vote for one candidate or another in the polling place. The candidates are not at the polling place with you.
    • Anyone who is over the age of 18 and a citizen can register to vote.
    • The 15th Amendment eliminated race as a qualification for voting in 1870, after the Civil War.
    • Women received the right to vote by passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920.
    • The minimum age requirement was changed from 21 to 18 years of age in 1971 by the 26th Amendment.
  3. Distribute the Voter Comparison Chart to the class. Each student can work independently or with a partner to generate bulleted points about the voting eligibility for the eighteenth century and the twenty-first century based on the discussion of the images. After a few minutes of work time, lead a class discussion of possible answers so that every student can fill out the chart correctly.
  4. Tell students that they will demonstrate the differences in voting requirements by participating in a class vote. Two votes will take place. The first will demonstrate eighteenth-century voting practices and the second will demonstrate twenty-first voting practices.
  5. Before the first voting session, have students select a Voting Eligibility Card from a hat to determine who is eligible to vote in the eighteenth century. (Note: There are 30 cards included on the sheet, but be sure that all five types of eligibility cards are in the hat regardless of the total number of students in the class.) Ask students who are eligible to raise their hands. Ask students who are not eligible to explain why they are not allowed to vote.
  6. Have students vote on an issue relevant to them (for example, "Should our grade level have their own separate recess time?" or "Should pizza be eliminated from the lunch menu?"). Call on the students who are eligible to vote one at a time and have the publically state their vote. Students should write the results in the space provided on the Voter Comparison Chart.
  7. Before the second voting session, have students return their eighteenth-century Eligibility Cards. Hand out the twenty-first century Eligibility Cards. Ask students who are eligible to raise their hands. Ask students who are not eligible to explain why they are not allowed to vote.
  8. Have students who are eligible to vote write their vote, "yes" or "no," on the back of their Eligibility Card and turn it in to simulate a secret ballot. The classroom should be totally quiet while this is happening. Count the votes and display the results so the students can write the results in the space provided on the Voter Comparison Chart.
  9. Ask students, which method and set of eligibility requirements was more fair? Why?


In the space on the bottom of the Voter Comparison Chart, students should write a paragraph on their understanding of how voter eligibility has changed over the years. Collect the Charts for grading.

Lesson Extensions

1. Using the voting results, students create a bar graph demonstrating the yes and no votes for the eighteenth-century style and twenty-first century style votes. They can also graph the number of eligible voters as compare to the number of ineligible voters in a bar graph or pie chart.

2. Find out whether people convicted of a felony are allowed to vote in your state. Ask students if they think this policy is fair.

This lesson was written by Shawn Cunlisk, Vancouver, WA, and Bill Neer, Baldwinsville, NY.