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The history of voting in the United States

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Rob Crandall // Shutterstock

The history of voting in the United States

Elections are the foundation of representative democracy, and your right to have a say at the ballot box was paid for with blood on foreign battlefields and on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and debated endlessly in the halls of Congress and in living-room suffrage meetings. The right of the governed to choose their own leaders was originally reserved only for a privileged few in the ruling class. Throughout the decades and centuries, however, the franchise slowly and steadily moved beyond the exclusive grasp of the aristocracy and into the reach of the common man and, eventually, the common woman.  

Racism, sexism, fear, and tradition kept entire generations from participating in the country's most basic institution, but as barriers have gone up, they have also come down. From the very beginning, generations of bold, brave, and committed activists battled to expand the right to vote to the disenfranchised—often against great odds and sometimes at the expense of their freedom and even their lives. Here's a look at how voting rights have evolved in America, how much has been accomplished, and how much remains to be done.

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Ridpath, John Clark, 1840-1900 // WikiCommons

1607: The Jamestown election

Almost immediately after landing in the New World, settlers at Jamestown, Va., held an election to choose a president of Great Britain's first permanent settlement in the Americas. Although the nominees were predetermined and only a select, privileged few—just 6% of the colonists—were allowed to vote, the stage had been set for the birth of democracy in what would become America. Leaders were for the first time chosen by those they would govern—or at least by some of them.

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Catherine // WikiCommons

1619: Jamestown Church assembly

The first representative assembly in British America convened on July 30, 1619, when the leaders of all of Virginia's 21 plantations and corporations gathered to choose a speaker and draft a charter. The meeting at Jamestown Church was the first clear break from the British parliamentary system and the genesis of what would become American democracy. By the mid-1700s, the new model of representative government had swept all 13 colonies and voting was the norm, although few were allowed to participate and electoral systems were inconsistent from colony to colony.

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Historical Society of Pennsylvania // WikiCommons

1776: John Adams' letter to James Sullivan

In a letter to Massachusetts Gov. James Sullivan, founding father and Declaration of Independence signer John Adams set the tone for the limited democracy that would define early America when he cautioned against enfranchising the masses. In 1776, voting was limited to only some land-owning white men over the age of 21, and Adams warned that if those standards were lowered, "there will be no End of it. New Claims will arise. Women will demand a Vote. Lads from 12 to 21 will think their Rights not enough attended to, and every Man, who has not a Farthing, will demand an equal Voice with any other in all Acts of State. It tends to confound and destroy all Distinctions, and prostrate all Ranks, to one common Levell."

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zimmytws // Shutterstock

1787: Ratification of Article I of the Constitution

Article I of the Constitution gave states the authority and responsibility of overseeing federal elections. It left room, however, for Congress to make laws that would override state regulations if deemed necessary.

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precious // Shutterstock

1792: Criminal disenfranchisement in Kentucky

In a move that would reverberate throughout the centuries and into the present day, Kentucky in 1792 became the first of many states to disenfranchise people convicted of certain crimes. In much of the country even today, the right of American citizens to have a voice in their government is still determined by their status in the criminal justice system.

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Elkanah Tisdale // WIkiCommons

1812: The first gerrymandered district

Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry in 1812 approved a state Senate district shaped like a salamander. His critics mocked the district as the "Gerry-Mander." More than a century later, America is embroiled in a fierce debate about the impact and legality of gerrymandering, a term for when the party in power draws voting districts in a way that is designed to dilute the opposition vote.

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The Bureau of Engraving and Printing // WikiCommons

1824: The election of John Quincy Adams

An odd but consequential peculiarity of American democracy called the Electoral College was put on display in 1824 when John Quincy Adams won the presidency after losing the popular vote. He was the first of five presidents who would ascend to the White House despite the fact that more Americans voted for his opponent. The first three were in the 19th century, the fourth was President George W. Bush, and the fifth is in the Oval Office today. In 2016, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton received nearly 3 million more votes than President Donald Trump.

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Kenneth C. Zirkel // WikiCommons

1848: The Seneca Falls convention

Abolitionists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott solidified the women's rights movement in 1848 when they organized a historic meeting at Seneca Falls, N.Y. Hundreds of regular women, abolitionists, and famous freedom activists like Frederick Douglass called for equality for women in the United States for the first time. One of their central demands was the right to vote, marking the start of the women's suffrage movement.

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State Archives of North Carolina Raleigh, NC's // Flickr

1856: Property requirement lifted

North Carolina in 1856 became the last state to abolish the property requirement, which had restricted voting only to landowners for as long as America had been a country. Nearly all free white men could now vote, signaling one of the most significant expansions of voting rights since the founding of the republic. Free black men could vote in six northern states at that time as well, but women could not vote at all.

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Allyn Cox // WikiCommons

1866: Civil Rights Act of 1866

Congress legislated on civil rights for the first time in history when it overrode a veto by President Andrew Jackson to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1866. The bill granted citizenship to all native-born citizens, although Native Americans were excluded, and it did not guarantee the right to vote.

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Thomas Kelly // WikiCommons

1870: Fifteenth Amendment ratified

Five years after the Civil War freed the slaves, African-Americans still lived in a state of citizenship limbo. That changed—sort of—in 1870 when the Fifteenth Amendment granted the vote to all men without regard to "race, color, or previous condition of servitude." The guarantee would prove hollow for most former slaves and their posterity, however, as the ruling class in all Southern states quickly moved to regain control and disenfranchise their former property.

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Schlesinger Libriary, RIAS, Harvard University // WikiCommons

1869: Wyoming grants women the right to vote

Although the Western territory wouldn't become a state until 1890, Wyoming granted women full voting rights more than two decades before it officially entered the Union. Its neighboring territories soon followed suit, making the Wild West the first region in America where women participated openly and equally in democracy.

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US Library of Congress // WikiCommons

1869: Edison invents the electric voting machine

Thomas Edison is the most famous inventor in American history and a man who racked up more than 1,000 patents, the very first of which was a copyright for the world's first electric voting machine. The device was designed to tally votes cast not by citizens, but by legislators, who previously had to shout "aye!" or "nay!" while a scribe tallied their votes by hand.

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bubba73 // WikiCommons

1877: Georgia institutes poll tax

The state of Georgia in 1877 pioneered one of the most infamous voting barriers in American history when it became the first state to charge a poll tax as a prerequisite of voting. The move signaled the beginning of a nearly century-long effort by Southern states to ensure that the overwhelming majority of black citizens would never get to exercise the right to vote afforded to them by the Fifteenth Amendment. Poll taxes also disenfranchised legions of poor whites, and they were levied by some northern states like Pennsylvania, as well.

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Siegel, Cooper & Co.--Democratic platform, T17373 U.S. Copyright Office // WikiCommons

1881: The 'voting apparatus' debuts

In 1881, a Chicago inventor named Anthony C. Beranek patented a "voting apparatus," a machine he hoped would eliminate ballot-box stuffing and other election fraud. Although it was certainly not the first contraption designed to change the way votes were cast, it holds the distinction of being the first voting machine ever used in a general election.

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PaulJoffe // WikiCommons

1898: The gear-and-lever voting machine is unveiled

A man named Alfred J. Gillespie in the late 1890s designed an expensive but reliable gear-and-lever voting machine, which sped up the voting process, kept a running tally, and even included a curtain for privacy. Its first use was in an 1898 town election in Rochester, N.Y., and from there became the gold standard of American democracy. Gillespie's design was manufactured well into the 1960s.

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United States Library of Congress // WikiCommons

1898: Louisiana enacts first grandfather clause

Two years after the Plessy v. Ferguson decisionushered in the era of Jim Crow segregation in the South, Louisiana became the first state to enact a grandfather clause, a strategy other Southern states would soon adopt. The move was designed to let poor whites bypass poll taxes and the infamous literacy tests that would follow by instituting a standard that no former slave or child of former slaves could possibly meet. Any man could vote for free and avoid a literacy test as long as he could prove that he, his father, or grandfather was eligible to vote before 1867—which of course no black man could, considering 1866 was the year the Civil Rights Bill first enfranchised African-Americans.

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John L. Spivak // WikiCommons

1908: Northern disenfranchisement on display

After Reconstruction, southern states rendered their black populations voiceless by keeping them out of the ballot box and criminalizing their daily lives by instituting so-called "black codes." Northern governments, however, were not above blatantly disenfranchising the people they or their white majorities deemed undesirable. In 1908, for example, New York City officials who assumed Jewish immigrants would vote for a socialist candidate scheduled voter registrations only on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath, as well as on one, single Monday, which they made sure coincided with the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur.

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W.R. Ross, Washington D.C. /Library of Congress // WikiCommons

1913: Seventeenth Amendment grants direct election of U.S. senators

As mandated by the Constitution, state legislatures—not American citizens—elected U.S. Senators for the first 125 years of the country's history. Several direct-election movements emerged and failed; but by the end of the 19th century, extended vacancies, conflicts of interest, and other problems in Senate elections were too big to ignore any longer. In 1913, the Seventeenth Amendment empowered the people to directly elect Senators for the first time in history.

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pingnews.com // Flickr

1920: Nineteenth Amendment grants women's suffrage

The hard work put in by several generations of bold and resilient suffragists finally paid off in 1920 when the Nineteenth Amendment granted women the right to vote. For the first time in history, and more than half a century after black men were first enfranchised, 50% of the population was no longer excluded from American democracy on the basis of gender.

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National Photo Company Collection // WikiCommons

1924: Indian Citizenship Act

Native Americans were not recognized as American citizens until 1924. Congress' passage of the Indian Citizenship Act granted citizenship and the right to vote to every Native American born in the country. Since states controlled elections, however, many found themselves barred from voting anyway as states found methods for exclusion.

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Library of Congress // Picryl

1952: McCarren Act Lifts Ban on Asian Citizenship

Prior to 1952, immigrants from western and northern Europe were heavily favored over Eastern Europeans and, especially, Asian immigrants. The McCarren Act lifted a long-standing ban on Asians immigrating to the United States, becoming citizens, and voting.

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Abbie Rowe // WikiCommons

1961: Twenty-Third Amendment gives D.C. residents the vote

Until 1961, residents of Washington D.C., could not vote in general elections unless they were lawfully registered in a state. The Twenty-Third Amendment changed all that and paved the way for residents of the nation's capital to cast votes for the presidents who would preside from their city.

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Pete Birkinshaw // WikiCommons

1961: First punch-card ballot system

Although punch-card technology had been around for decades, it changed the way people voted with the invention of the Coyle Vote Recorder in 1961. The new system made casting and counting votes easier, but it was a harbinger of things to come. Half a century later, phrases like "hanging chads" would be forever synonymous with punch-card failures in the most controversial election in modern American history.  

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U.S. Government // WikiCommons

1962: Poll taxes are outlawed

A century after the Emancipation Proclamation, the Twenty-Fourth Amendment went a long way to fulfilling the promise made in vain with the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870. The poll tax, still in practice in five Southern states, was outlawed.

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The Library of Congress // Flickr

1965: Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights

Some of the most historic moments of the Civil Rights movement came from three events that took place over the course of three weeks in Alabama. First, peaceful Civil Rights activists marching for voting rights across the Edmund Pettus Bridge were beaten back and brutalized by police on national television in what came to be known as Bloody Sunday. The incident compelled Martin Luther King Jr. to take part in a symbolic march two days later, which was then followed by a 25,000-strong final march that compelled President Johnson to finally take action.

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Cecil Stoughton White House Press Office // WIkiCommons

1965: Voting Rights Act

A century after the Civil War ended, the violence, terrorism, discrimination, and disenfranchisement that characterized black life in the South came to a head when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. The legislation delivered in substance what the Fifteenth Amendment had promised in theory. Thanks to the efforts of generations of tireless Civil Rights activists, some of the biggest barriers to voting came tumbling down. Voter intimidation and mechanisms like literacy tests were outlawed in the most significant federal intervention in state-run elections since Reconstruction.

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U.S.Department of Agriculture's PhotoStream // Flickr

1970: Richard Nixon extends Voting Rights Act

Originally designed to run for five years, the most successful voting rights initiative in American history was set to expire in 1970. Instead, President Richard Nixon extended the Voting Rights Act for five more years.

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U.S.Government // WikiCommons

1971: Twenty-Sixth Amendment lowers voting age

With the Vietnam War raging in full force and millions of young people raging over the fact that they could be drafted before being allowed to cast ballots, public outcry led to the passage of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment. The addition effectively lowered the voting age from 21 to 18.

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Thomas J. O'Halloran // WikiCommons

1975: Gerald Ford extends the Voting Rights Act

The resignation of President Richard Nixon landed Gerald Ford in the Oval Office and by 1975, Nixon's extension of the Voting Rights Act was set to expire. Like his predecessor, however, Ford extended the act by five more years.

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Michael Evans // WikiCommons

1982: Voting Rights Act extended for 25 years

President Ronald Reagan originally proposed scaling back the protections secured by the Voting Rights Act, a move that was quickly met with intense criticism. Reagan capitulated in 1982 and extended the key provisions of the Voting Rights Act not by another five years, but for a quarter century.  

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U.S. National Archives and Records Administration // WikiCommons

1984: Voting Accessibility For the Elderly and Handicapped Act

President Reagan signed another piece of legislation that extended the vote to even more Americans. The Voting Accessibility For the Elderly and Handicapped Act required polling places to make their facilities accessible to seniors or those with disabilities during all federal elections.

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DoD // 315thAirliftWing

1986: Uniformed and Overseas Absentee Voting Act

The Uniformed and Overseas Absentee Voting Act extended the right to participate in American democracy beyond the borders of the country. The act required all states and territories to, among other protections, allow military service members, their families, and citizens living abroad to register to vote and receive absentee ballots.

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White House // WikiCommons

1993: National Voter Registration Act

Bill Clinton signed the National Voter Registration Act into law to make voting easier in several ways. The key provision allowed people to register to vote when they applied for a driver's license or public assistance.

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Creative Commons // WikiCommons

1996: Voting Machine For the Blind and Illiterate

Ronald J. Harp Jr. invented a voting machine in 1996 that used audio to enfranchise those who couldn't read or who were visually impaired. The machine could be used to cast votes for people or ballot issues.

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Alessandro Pietri // Shutterstock

2000: American citizens in territories denied vote

The First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2000 that residents of America's territories—Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands—could not vote in general elections. The same ruling had been made in 1994, even though the millions of people who live in the combined territories are American citizens.

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Elvert Barnes // Flickr

2000: Bush and Gore race

In one of the closest and most controversial elections in American history, George W. Bush won the 2000 presidential election after the Supreme Court ordered a halt to a recount initiated by his Democratic opponent, former Vice President Al Gore. The race came down to just a few hundred votes in Florida, whose 25 electoral votes would have tipped the election either way. After several recounts played out over several weeks—which included election workers agonizing over "hanging chads" and other punch-card irregularities—the Supreme Court intervened and ordered a stop to the recount, which delivered the election to Bush.

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Paul Morse/AFP // GettyImages

2002: Help America Vote Act

The 2000 election put the fragility of America's voting system on display for the world to see. Two years later, Congress responded with the Help America Vote Act. The act included sweeping reforms that mandated and funded improvements to the machines, mechanisms, and procedures involved in America's elections.

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NCinDC // Flickr

2006: Congress extends Section 5 of Voting Rights Act

Congress again extended Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in 2006 for another 25 years. The heart of the landmark legislation, Section 5, prevented suspect jurisdictions from changing their voting laws without first submitting the changes to the Justice Department or the D.C. District Court.

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Chip Somodevilla // GettyImages

2009: Al Franken wins Minnesota by 312 votes

Comedian Al Franken won a Senate seat in Minnesota after the longest contested recount in history, which lasted nearly eight months. In the end, Franken won by just 312 votes out of nearly 3 million cast, paving the way for a 60-seat Democratic supermajority in the Senate. Although the race in and of itself didn't impact voting in America, unsubstantiated fraud allegations would provide justification for a new movement to restrict voting and exclude large segments of the population from the franchise.

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Nancy Pelosi // Flickr

2010: Midterm elections signal new era in voting

Although Democrats held the Senate in the 2010 midterm election, Tea Party-bolstered Republicans engineered a route into the House of Representatives and swept into power in statehouses across the country. Almost immediately, Republican governors and state legislators began passing seemingly unconnected laws that, when put together, had the potential to disenfranchise millions of immigrants, ex-convicts, students, minorities, and other citizens who tend to vote Democratic. Within a year, 38 states had introduced legislation designed to reduce the number of people who could vote.

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Stan Honda/AFP // GettyImages

2011: The voter ID law era begins

In the runup to the 2012 presidential election, many states began proposing or passing strict new voter ID laws. With virtually no exceptions, these measures were devised by Republican lawmakers, usually under the guise of preventing voter fraud and often without offering evidence that fraud existed. Many of the new restrictions disproportionately affected poor people and minorities.

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Ben Skylar // GettyImages

2012: Texas v. Holder

In 2011, Texas passed one of the most restrictive voter ID laws in America requiring a photo ID to vote. Since the state could not show that the law would not discriminate against minorities, a federal court rejected the law under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

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UpstateNYer // WikiCommons

2013: Shelby County v. Holder

Shelby County, Ala., filed suit in 2013 asking a federal court to render Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional. The case went to the Supreme Court, which in 2013 delivered one of the most controversial decisions in history when it ruled in favor of Shelby County and overturned key portions of Voting Rights Act, including the crucial Section 5 provision. Almost immediately, Texas put its previously blocked voter ID law into effect. Within three years, nearly 1,000 polling places closed, a disproportionate number of which served poor and minority communities, many in regions that were supervised by Section 5 before the High Court gutted the Voting Rights Act.

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AFGE // Flickr

2016: New restrictions pile up

Fourteen states in 2016 put new voting restrictions in place for the first time in a presidential election. Many of the states would have otherwise been supervised by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

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Rob Crandall // Shutterstock

2017: More laws target voters

North Dakota and Arkansas passed voter ID laws in 2017, and a ballot initiative ushered in a restrictive law in Missouri. Also that year, New Hampshire, Indiana, Iowa, and Georgia added new restrictions to existing laws.

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Joe Raedle // GettyImages

2018: New voting restrictions reach half the country

Six states enacted new voting laws in 2018 or enhanced existing ones. That brought to 25 the tally of states that passed laws making it harder to vote since the 2010 midterm elections.

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Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur's Photostream // Flickr

2018: Supreme Court approves voter purges

In yet another major decision split 5-4 along ideological lines, the Supreme Court in 2018 ruled that Ohio could proceed with an aggressive purge of its voter registration rolls. A key battleground state, Ohio officials began removing from its rolls anyone who didn't participate in some form of election activity for two years. Critics argued the move, which provided a model that other states soon followed, served no functional purpose but defied the National Voter Registration Act and unduly harmed poor people, minorities, veterans, and seniors.

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jodylehigh // Pixabay

2018: Florida removes criminal disenfranchisement

Also in 2018, in a different battleground state, Florida residents voted to approve Amendment 4, which gave more than 1 million ex-felons the right to vote in Florida. Criminal disenfranchisement is as old as the state of Florida, and as with most states, the practice disproportionately affects minorities. In the Sunshine State before Amendment 4, criminal disenfranchisement had barred more than one in five otherwise eligible black adults from voting.

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Susan Montgomery // Shutterstock

2019: Supreme Court agrees to hear key gerrymandering case

After years of ducking and punting on partisan gerrymandering cases, the Supreme Court finally agreed to hear a major partisan districting case in 2019. The High Court will decide once and for all whether to require voting districts to be drawn in a way that accurately reflects community demographics or leave it to the states.

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