To celebrate Women’s Equality Day, keep fighting for voting rights
In June, when Hillary Clinton was celebrating her big win in the New Jersey primary and the delegate lead that would put her over the top to become the first female presidential nominee for a major political party, she acknowledged how she had come so far. “Tonight’s victory is not about one person,” she said. “It belongs to generations of women and men who struggled and sacrificed and made this moment possible.”
Then she offered a personal tribute in that public moment to her mother, Dorothy Rodham, who lived to see her close race with Barack Obama in 2008 but died in 2011 before her daughter broke this particular glass ceiling. Clinton, who called her mother “the biggest influence in my life,” said: “This past Saturday would have been her 97th birthday, because she was born on June 4, 1919, and some of you may know the significance of that date. On the very day my mother was born in Chicago, Congress was passing the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. That amendment finally gave women the right to vote.”
That important, America-changing event is celebrated August 26, Women’s Equality Day, to commemorate the certification of the 19th Amendment. The U.S. Congress designated the day in 1971, prompted by the efforts of many, particularly the indomitable Rep. Bella Abzug (D-N.Y.), the passionate leader who helped found the National Women’s’ Political Caucus.
No matter what anyone thinks about the politics or policies of Hillary Clinton, no one can deny that the progress the country has made—in the form of more women elected to high office and more women behind the electoral scene—is rooted in the expansion of access to the vote.
But Women’s Equality Day is a good time to remind ourselves that the right to vote has always been contested in this country. This is just as true in 2016 as it was a century ago.
In fact, the passage of the 19th Amendment did not expand the franchise to all women, or citizens. African American women and men throughout the South would be barred from voting by poll taxes, literacy tests, and violent retribution until the signing into law of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, a battle that was won by bloody sacrifice, and that is still being fought. And despite wishful and wistful remembrances of solidarity, though women of color and men such as activist and abolitionist Frederick Douglass had been so crucial to the success of the cause, early white suffragists did not always reciprocate.
As the 19th Amendment was implemented throughout the country, hurdles to voting were set up for many groups, including Mexican Americans. Native Americans, members of sovereign nations, often were considered U.S. subjects, not citizens. Most were granted citizenship by the early 20th century. But even since the 1960s, there have been cases brought by Native Americans over voting rights, usually in states where their numbers are high and their votes could provide crucial margins.
The 23rd Amendment, ratified in 1961, granted the citizens of the District of Columbia the right to choose electors in the presidential election. The ratification of the 26th Amendment in 1971, lowering the voting age to 18, was quick—a little over three months. Advocates argued the fundamental unfairness of 18-year-olds being considered old enough to be drafted and die in the Vietnam War, but not to vote.
The Voting Rights Act would not have been passed without support that crossed party lines. Several times over the years, versions of the bill were re-authorized. In 2006, what had now been named the Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King, César E. Chávez, Barbara C. Jordan, William C. Velázquez, and Dr. Hector P. Garcia Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act was overwhelmingly passed and signed by President George W. Bush.
But efforts to limit access to voting have more lives than the villain in a horror movie who keeps returning for the sequel after the audience swears it’s seen him bite the dust.
In Shelby County v. Holder, decided in June 2013, the Supreme Court invalidated key provisions of the Voting Rights Act. By a 5-to-4 vote, it freed states to change their election rules and laws without preclearance, or advance approval from the federal government. “Our country has changed,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote. “While any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.”
In dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the act had changed from fighting “first-generation barriers to ballot access” to “second-generation barriers” like racial gerrymandering and laws requiring at-large voting in places with a sizable black minority.
Even before the ruling, many states (some, but not all, in the South) had passed or were on the road to passing rules restricting voting. These laws limit the kinds of acceptable identification or reduce early voting days, or eliminate same-day registration. Supporters claim they were put in place to protect against in-person voter fraud, which studies have shown to be rare to nonexistent. Opponents say the restrictions are driven by partisan goals and aimed disproportionately at minorities, the young, the poor, and the elderly.
The laws have been challenged by the U.S. Justice Department, and coalitions of groups—including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Brennan Center for Justice, the NAACP, the League of Women Voters, and the Advancement Project—have joined or supported the challenges. There have been several recent gains, as courts have struck down the restrictive voting law in Michigan, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Texas, Kansas, and North Carolina, where the Republican legislature passed the most extreme voter-suppression law we have seen in decades.
But the backlash, as usual, continues. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump recently has said that, despite polls that show him behind in crucial battleground states such as Pennsylvania, a loss will be due to “cheating,” and he is calling on volunteers to watch polling places on Election Day, looking for irregularities. Those actions might violate a consent decree against the RNC and GOP over actions challenging voters at polling places; they certainly would hark back to Jim Crow actions to intimidate voters.
Meanwhile, groups such as the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law continue to observe elections, with a different goal, one of making sure eligible citizens can cast their votes.
The work of organizations allied to protect the right of citizens to vote and make those votes count is a positive development to celebrate on Women’s Equality Day 2016, but also a reminder that vigilance has always been necessary to make America the inclusive and exceptional country it strives to be.
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