High School Students (Grades 7-12)
The Expansion of Voting Rights
By examining the expansion of the right to vote, the following activity highlights the notion of the United States Constitution as a living document. Eight of the seventeen amendments adopted since the ratification of the Bill of Rights have involved voting rights. Numerous Supreme Court decisions as well as federal legislation (most notably the Voting Rights Act) have attempted to break down barriers to voting.
This lesson is designed as an introductory activity to provide students with an overview of the historical development of voting rights. In addition, the activity provides students with the opportunity to begin exploring what the right to vote means in America.
At the end of this lessons, students will be able to:
- identify specific examples of 'voting qualifications' used by states in America's history to deny the right of minorities to vote;
- analyze specific historical examples in terms of their restriction on the right to vote;
- appreciate the expansion of the right to vote through constitutional amendments, Supreme Court decisions, and the Voting Rights Act.
- Introduce the topic of voting rights, stressing its historical development.
- Distribute copies of the Handout on the Right to Vote and ask students to read the first paragraph on the law and its legislative history.
- Divide the class into small groups (three to five students) and ask each group to decide whether or not the action in each example is a denial of the right to vote. Tell each group that it will be expected to give reasons for each of its answers. Groups may wish to appoint one spokesperson for the entire exercise or may wish to have a different spokesperson provide the answer and an accompanying rationale for each case study. Allow 10 minutes for groups to reach their decisions.
- Record each group's responses on the board and note groups' rationales where appropriate.
- Debrief the activity by reviewing the actual outcome of each case as well as its basis (e.g., constitutional amendment, Voting Rights Act, Supreme Court decision). The outcome of examples one, two and four will probably not generate a great deal of controversy. Tell students that that the basis for each of these cases is relatively recent. Examples three and five should generate class discussion. You may wish to share Handout 2 (Answer Key) with students at this time.
- You may also wish to guide this discussion to a more general question of what the right to vote means. Additional debriefing or follow-up lessons can focus on current controversies relating to voting, such as how to conduct the census, apportionment as a way of increasing minority representation, techniques of making registration easier (such as motor-voter), etc.
- Another follow-up activity is to have students read excerpts from the Voting Rights Act and/or selected Supreme Court decisions (recommended: South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301, 1966).
This article was written by Richard Roe and Peter deLacy, attorneys/educators on the staff of the National Institute for Citizen Education in the Law; it first appeared in Update on Law-Related Education, published by the American Bar Association.
>>The Expansion of Voting Rights
>>The Right to Vote: Handout
>>Answer Key: Handout
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