This week marks the 100th anniversary of the U.S. Congress passing and the states ratifying the 19th Amendment, officially giving the right to vote to all citizens of the United States regardless of gender. This amendment finally granted the right to vote to one of the last remaining populations of non-voters: women. After years of fighting, it appeared as though the suffragists achieved what they had been demanding since the first women’s suffrage convention in Seneca Falls, NY took place in 1848.
To properly commemorate this anniversary, it is important to understand the history behind the amendment and the plight so many still face today when exercising their constitutional right: voter suppression.
Between the years of 1848 and 1919-20, suffragists campaigned, lobbied, protested, marched and demanded rights for women, costing some their lives. The combined efforts of the National Woman Suffrage Association, the National Woman’s Party, and the National Association of Colored Women eventually led to the ratification of the 19th Amendment. As history has shown, however, amending the Constitution may grant new rights on paper, but that does not necessarily translate to new rights in practice. Despite amendments to the Constitution giving all populations the right to vote, countless voters are denied their right to cast a ballot through voter suppression tactics that have been evolving for more than a century.
Throughout American history, voter suppression tactics have evolved from literacy tests to proof of citizenship. No matter what populations’ voting rights were endangered, suffragists were always in the trenches fighting for justice. Black men were continuously denied the right to vote through tactics such as literacy tests, poll taxes, and constitutional quizzes despite the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, which extended the right to vote to all male citizens of the United States “regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
Even then, the American Woman Suffrage Association fought back. And when many Black women were denied their ability to exercise their right to vote for years after the ratification of the 19th Amendment, suffragists demanded justice. Eventually, Congress passed the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. This Act prohibited any election practice denying the right to vote to any citizen on the basis of race. Further, the Act required jurisdictions with histories of voter discrimination to submit any changes in their election laws to the Justice Department for federal approval prior to the laws taking effect.
In 1975, special provisions of the Voting Rights Act were extended to officially outlaw literacy tests, removing significant barriers to voting for the Black population and ending decades-long suppression in that manner.
This is the true legacy of the 19th Amendment: the reality that progress will only happen if the fight continues. Whether this means taking to the streets and protesting, lobbying lawmakers, or working as a poll monitor, the best way to honor the suffragists is to keep fighting their fight.
While we appreciate the 19th Amendment and celebrate its 100-year anniversary, it is crucial to acknowledge that there is still much more work to do in terms of voting equity. Efforts to end discriminatory voting practices must continue because while it is not a constitutional bar, voter suppression still occurs today--it just presents itself differently. Common examples of voter suppression in 2020 include the following:
- Voter ID Laws – 36 out of 50 states require that IDs be shown at the polls. Obtaining an ID, however, is not a simple process for all eligible voters. Typically, there is a cost associated with getting an ID. Sometimes, applicants are required to show certain residency documents, which they may not have on hand or are also costly and difficult to locate. The requirements to receive an ID can be especially burdensome for lower income communities, and the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates ID laws reduce voter turnout by 2 to 3 percentage points.
- Voter Registration Restrictions – Restrictions to voter registration can include requiring a person to prove citizenship, show particular identification, or limiting the time span in which you can register to vote. Citizenship can only be proven through a birth document or passport, two documents that are not commonly carried around. Due to this hurdle, many individuals are unable to prove their citizenship when asked at a polling center, and thus are denied their right to vote. Additionally, some states close voter registration almost a month before the election takes place. This is long before the election is at the forefront of most citizens' minds.
- Elimination of Certain Early Voting Days – In recent years, some states (like Ohio) have limited weeknight and Sunday early voting, times that are quite popular with Black voters. Countless churches and community centers have run “Souls to the Polls” drives in which groups of voters would migrate from church to Sunday early voting centers to cast their votes. In 2008, in Cuyahoga County (Cleveland), African Americans composed 56% of all Sunday and weeknight early voters.
- Voter Purging – Voter purging refers to election officials removing registrations for voters believed to be ineligible to vote because they have moved out of the voting district, have died, or are ineligible for other reasons. Following the Supreme Court’s controversial 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, jurisdictions previously covered under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (the section that required preclearance) are no longer required to have federal oversight for such requirements. In light of the decision, these jurisdiction’s rates of voter purging are increasing, which is inconsistent with the voter purge rates in the rest of the country. In many cases, voters only learn that their registration has been purged when they arrive at the polls to cast their vote, receiving no prior notification that their registration is being voided. Voter purges are also problematic when based on inaccurate data and too close to an election.
- Precinct Closures – States are no longer required to contact voters when they choose to close a voting precinct. Precinct closures can pose countless obstacles to voters, especially those of lower socio-economic status who may be unable to reach the new precinct. Reducing precincts may also create longer lines at those that remain open, and confusion as to where citizens may actually cast a vote. There are also tactics of voter suppression.
- Felony Disenfranchisement – Many individuals who have been convicted of felonies are stripped of their right to vote. The laws prohibiting these individuals from voting may differ from state to state. The variation of laws depending on the state in which you live, however, can be considered voter suppression itself, as this confusion is meant to discourage those convicted of felonies from casting votes even when they still have the right to vote. These laws disproportionately affect Black Americans, who often receive harsher sentences than White Americans for the same crime. States with the strictest felony disenfranchisement laws have extensive histories of suppressing Black individuals’ rights.
- Gerrymandering – Every 10 years, state district lines are redrawn based on the census to reallocate representation in Congress and state legislatures. The redrawing of these lines is meant to reflect changes in population and racial diversity; however, it is often used as a political tool to manipulate election outcomes.
To properly pay tribute to the suffragists, it is crucial to continue fighting for fair and equitable voting rights for all. The main way to combat voter suppression is to be aware of these tactics, take the necessary steps to ensure that your and community members’ registration is up to date, and to make a voting plan--so you have adequate time to overcome any obstacles to cast your ballot. This is the legacy of the 19th Amendment we look to honor now and always.
For more information on voting rights, ways to vote, and how to register, please visit ADL’s Voting Rights page.