The True History of Voting Rights

In this lesson, students learn about the expansion and restriction of voting rights in the United States, examine court rulings, discuss voter disengagement, and explore a voting rights timeline. Students will also learn how to register to vote.
Grade Level


At the end of the lesson:

  • Students will be able to recognize that the expansion of voting rights in the United States has not been a smooth path, nor has it been a history of continuous progress.  
  • Students will be able to connect the history of voter suppression in the U.S. to the present.
  • Eligible students will be able to register to vote.
Essential Questions
  • Is voting a right or a privilege?
  • What is the “story of voting rights” we tell about the United States? 
  • What is the actual “story of voting rights” in the United States? 
  • Handout: Voting Rights Cards (Printed and cut or cropped, with one card distributed to each student)
  • Handout: Voting Rights Timeline 


Franchise [fran-chize] (noun): a right or privilege that a government guarantees its people. This usually refers to the right to vote. The verb “enfranchise” means to grant the right to vote to a person or group of people. The verb “disenfranchise” means to take the right to vote away from a person or group of people.

Voter Suppression [voh-ter suh-preh-shun] (noun): an effort or activity designed to prevent people from voting by making voting impossible, dangerous or just very difficult. Voter suppression can be legal and organized (for example, literacy tests or laws limiting the number of polling places), illegal and organized (for example, mailers or robocalls telling people to vote on the wrong day), or illegal and unorganized (for example, an individual showing up to a polling place to intimidate others into not voting).

Note to the Teacher

We are publishing this lesson in the fall of 2020, as many educators are teaching remotely. Where necessary, the procedure for this lesson includes adaptations for classes meeting online. 

Suggested Procedure

  1. Start with a warm-up to get students thinking about the history of voting and voting rights in the United States. Ask them to write down one fact they already know about the topic and have two or three students share out. This is a good time to introduce the idea of that there’s a “story of voting rights” most of us are familiar with, and that many believe that in the United States, the fight for voting rights ended in the 1960s.
  2. Distribute the Voting Rights Cards, and have the five students with “Constitutional Amendment” cards line up in chronological order. [Those teaching online could email or message each student with the content of one “Voting Rights Card” at the beginning of class, noting which student has which card. When it’s time for those with “Constitutional Amendment” cards to line up, call on the five students with these cards and ask each, in order, to read their card aloud.]
  3. Ask all students to take two minutes and write a sentence or two that tells “the story of voting rights” we get when we only consider the Constitutional Amendments. Have one or two students share these stories. After they do, you might point out that that the common story of voting in the United States is one of continuous expansion: The right to vote is extended and extended and extended again until all Americans are included. But we know that’s not the whole story.
  4. Have students divide into two teams, according to their cards: 1776–1964 and 1965–present. Ask each team to work on one side of the room to create a “human timeline,” lining up in chronological order as quickly as possible. [Those teaching online could prepare ahead to have each team go into a different breakout room. Provide students a shared document in which they can list their names in the chronological order of their timeline cards so that when the class comes back together, they can read out their half of the timeline in order.]
  5. Once students have formed their “human timeline,” have them share aloud in chronological order, reading their date and its corresponding event. As they share, define any unfamiliar vocabulary (e.g., poll tax, ratified) and check for understanding. After the timeline’s been read aloud, share a copy of the complete Voting Rights Timeline with students, so they have all of the dates in one place.
  6. Divide students into groups of three. Ask each group to read through the timeline and write a more accurate two- to three-sentence “story of voting rights.”
  7. Come back together as a class and have each group share their story. When necessary, summarize these more complicated “stories of voting rights” and supplement them with evidence from the timeline when possible.
  8. Explain to students that, even though the fight for voting rights often gets talked about like it’s in the past, it’s still unfolding today. Share a few key statistics about voting: 
    2 of 5 Americans don’t vote in Presidential elections. 
    3 of 5 Americans don’t vote in Midterm elections. 
    1 of 5 Americans isn’t registered to vote. 
    Ask students to take two minutes to list as many reasons as they can think of that explain why voter turnout is so low in the United States.
  9. Give students a minute to share their ideas aloud. You can explain that most of the reasons people don’t register and vote fit into one of three categories:
    People don’t vote because they don’t have the right to vote. 
    People don’t vote because voting is too difficult or dangerous. 
    People don’t vote because they don’t think their vote makes a difference.
    It may be useful to list these categories on the board so students will be able to refer back.
  10. Using these categories as your starting point, list the lesson’s vocabulary terms—franchise (including “disenfranchise”) and voter suppression—on the board. Invite students to share additional examples of voter suppression or disenfranchisement they may have heard about, referring back to the first two reasons people often don’t vote. Ask clarifying questions to ensure students understand the difference between the two.
  11. Ask students to look back through the timeline and consider the question, “How have disenfranchisement and voter suppression shaped the history of voting rights in the United States?” Allow them time to respond.
  12. Explain that we might think of voter disengagement as a lighter form of voter suppression: That’s the third reason some people choose not to register or vote—People don’t register or vote because they think their vote doesn’t make a difference. Remind students that this is a message we hear a lot: the system is rigged, or one vote won’t matter, or politics doesn’t really affect my life. When these messages are targeted to certain communities, they become a form of voter suppression.
  13. If time permits, give students two minutes to free write some arguments they might make to encourage people to vote. Have them share their answers aloud.

Alignment to CCSS

English Language Arts Standards | History/Social Studies | Grade 6-8

English Language Arts Standards | History/Social Studies | Grade 9-10

English Language Arts Standards | History/Social Studies | Grade 11-12

Extension Activities

Take 10 Minutes to Register Future Voters Today

Do Something: My Voice, My Voter’s Guide

Voting in Your Town

External Resource

Nationwide Voting Information