Voting Rights and Democracy

OP-ED: How the Right to Vote Became Fundamental

A century ago, the Nineteenth Amendment was added to the Constitution, prohibiting state-sponsored voting discrimination on account of sex, and women’s status as equal citizens was formally etched in the Constitution’s text.  What is less well known is that the Nineteenth Amendment also helped cement the idea that the right to vote is a fundamental right inherent in citizenship.

For America’s first 150 years, the exclusion of half the population from participation in the electorate stood firmly in the way of viewing the right to vote as a fundamental right.  When, in the wake of Civil War, the Constitution was first amended to protect the right to vote, it drew a sharp line between men and women.  All citizens did not have a fundamental right to vote.  After all, women were citizens and, as Reconstruction congressmen repeatedly argued, [w]omen do not vote.”  Although a “woman is as much a citizen as a man,” when it came to the right to vote, the Reconstruction Framers took the view that states “may still discriminate.”  In short, instead of being a fundamental right, voting was viewed as a privilege that could be given to men and denied to women, who were deemed to be represented by men “at the polls and in the affairs of Government.”

Indeed, in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment explicitly wrote this cramped view of democracy into the Constitution by imposing a penalty of reduced congressional representation on states that denied or abridged the right to vote to any of its “male” citizens.  In 1870, at the very moment when the Fifteenth Amendment first recognized that the right to vote was necessary to make real the promise of freedom and equal citizenship for Black men, our national charter underscored that women had no claim to the ballot and could be relegated to second-class status.  The Reconstruction Framers, time and again, took it as a given that women would be indirectly represented by their “fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons to whom the right of suffrage is given.”

Women’s rights activists of the 1860s and 1870s, however, rejected the idea that our foundational promises of democracy, freedom, and equality were real if half the population could be excluded from voting.  As Frances Ellen Watkins Harper argued at the Eleventh National Women’s Rights Convention, “we are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity.”  She urged that we should “have no privileged class, trampling upon and outraging the unprivileged classes.”  Charlotte Rollin, a Black South Carolinian and the first of her state to serve as a delegate to a national suffrage convention, demanded the vote “not as a favor, not as a privilege, but as a right based on the ground that we are human beings, and as such entitled to all human rights.”  Susan B. Anthony put these arguments in constitutional form, insisting that the “[t]he Constitution as it is protects me.  If I could get a practical application of the Constitution it would protect me and all women in the enjoyment of perfect equality of rights everywhere under the shadow of the American flag.”

Anthony’s constitutional argument failed to convince the courts that women already had the right to vote, but led to what Carrie Chapman Catt called “fifty-two years of pauseless campaign” to “get the word ‘male’ out of the Constitution.”  The Nineteenth Amendment erased the idea that women should be governed and represented at the polls by the men in their family.  The Amendment replaced virtual representation by men with the idea that women’s status as citizens entailed the right to vote.  Individuals—not households—were the basic units of our democracy.  By erasing the gender line in voting, the Nineteenth Amendment helped establish the idea that the right to vote is a fundamental part of what it means to be a citizen, not simply a privilege enjoyed only by men.  It forged a close connection between individual citizenship and the right to vote and opened the door to a more inclusive democracy.

To be sure, the reality of the Nineteenth Amendment did not always live up to its promise.  While the Nineteenth Amendment promised the ballot for half the population, in reality it left behind women of color, who repeatedly faced literacy tests, Klan violence, and other discriminatory barriers when they sought to voteBlack womenNative womenLatina, and Asian American women continued to suffer state-sponsored voting discrimination.  While white suffragists staged huge parades to celebrate what they viewed as a crowning achievement, women of color, all too often, found that they were still shut out of equal citizenship and full participation in our democracy.  As Black suffragist Coralie Franklin Cook put it, the suffragist movement had “turned its back on women of color.”

Because states, for decades, were free to flout the Fifteenth Amendment, the Nineteenth Amendment’s protections proved irrelevant.  Black women, such as Mary Church Terrell, Ida B. Wells, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, and numerous others, had to continue to fight to ensure the vibrant, inclusive democracy that the Constitution already promised.  The struggle required a national movement to end what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called “the flagrant denial of the right to vote.”  The Voting Right Act of 1965, not the Nineteenth Amendment, proved to be the measure that ended the widespread disenfranchisement of women of color.

Amendments that followed the Nineteenth Amendment, spurred on by social movements, further enshrined the idea that voting is an individual right that belongs to all citizens.  In 1964, the Twenty-Fourth Amendment abolished the use of poll taxes or other taxes on voting in federal elections, reflecting that “a citizen of the United States should not have to pay for his constitutional right to vote.” Because the right to vote was fundamental, the Amendment’s Framers insisted that “the payment of money, whether directly or indirectly, whether in a small amount or in a large amount, should never be permitted to reign as a criterion of democracy.”  In 1971, the Twenty-Sixth Amendment took aim at age discrimination in voting.  Citizens aged eighteen years of age, who were being asked to go to war for the nation, could not be excluded from the right to vote because of their age.  Age, like wealth, race, and sex, could no longer be a justification to fence out citizens from our democracy.  Exclusions that had long made voting a mere privilege were no more.

One hundred years later, the Nineteenth Amendment reminds us that the arc of our constitutional progress is a story of the struggle to close gaps that all too often exist between our constitutional promises and lived realities.  The story of the Nineteenth Amendment reminds us both how far we have come and how far we have to go to ensure that the right to vote can be enjoyed as a fundamental right possessed by all Americans.  While there is no right protected by more parts of the Constitution than the right to vote, still, here in 2020, we must fight continuing efforts to make it harder for all people to exercise their franchise.  To those generations of women and men who sacrificed so much to the cause of voting rights, there is no greater tribute we can pay to them than to carry on the fight to which they dedicated, and even gave, their lives.

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