Election 2012 Primer: Voter Eligibility

The right to vote is firmly grounded in the founding of our country. However, the affirmative right to vote is not expressly granted in the U.S. Constitution. As the U.S. Supreme Court noted in the landmark case of Bush v. Gore, “The individual citizen has no federal constitutional right to vote for electors for the President of the United States.”

As a result, voter eligibility continues to be an evolving legal issue. When the country was founded, the right to vote was largely limited to white property owners. However, through a series of Constitutional amendments, voting restrictions based on gender, race, age, and wealth (via poll taxes) slowly have been abolished. For instance, the Nineteenth Amendment states, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

On issues where the constitution is silent, both federal and state laws dictate voter eligibility. For example, on the federal level, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 bans certain discriminatory voting practices, such as literacy requirements. Meanwhile, the Americans With Disabilities Act mandates that polling places meet certain accessibility requirements.

State laws largely govern durational residency requirements, prisoner voting rights, and registration requirements. For example, in New Jersey, you are eligible to vote so long as you satisfy the following requirements:

  • You are a United States citizen
  • You will be 18 years of age by the next election
  • You will be a resident of the State and county 30 days before the election
  • You are NOT currently serving a sentence, probation or parole because of a felony conviction

As evidence that voting laws continue to evolve, New Jersey’s laws governing the voter eligibility of former felons were recently amended to provide greater access. Under the current law, any person who is no longer in prison, or has completed his or her term of probation or parole can register to vote. By comparison, four states—Florida, Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia—still permanently bar ex-felons from voting.

Donald Scarinci is a managing partner at Lyndhurst, N.J.-based law firm Scarinci Hollenbeck.  He is also the editor of the Constitutional Law Reporter and Government & Law blogs. Election 2012 Primer: Voter Eligibility