This week marks the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which declared that the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex.” That milestone occurred more than 50 years after Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone and other female activists first submitted their petition to Congress in 1866 for “universal suffrage.” While the amendment’s language was straightforward, history shows us that the right to vote enshrined in that amendment was anything but universal, and was instead largely reserved for wealthy white women. Across the country, voter suppression tactics from poll taxes to annual fees to literacy tests and so-called “grandfather clauses” (you could vote only if your grandfather had been eligible to vote) denied the franchise to both men and women of color and modest means for many years.
Consider that in 1920 large groups of Native American and Asian American women were still denied citizenship, let alone the right to vote. Chinese Americans were unable to vote until the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943, and Native Americans were not allowed to vote in all states until 1948. It was not until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed Jim Crow-era racial discrimination tactics that Black Americans could fully exercise their constitutional right to vote. The extension of that act in 1975 requiring voting materials to be translated into languages other than English was key to enabling many Latinx and immigrant citizens to participate in elections.
So, this year’s anniversary marks more than just 100 years of hard-fought struggles to ensure that the foundational lever in a democracy is granted to all of its citizens. It is also a reminder of the work that still needs to be done.
The Greek roots of the word “democracy” literally translate to the “rule of the people.” As Thomas Jefferson noted: “We do not have government by the majority; we have government by the majority who participate.”
Now, more than 50 years again since the Voting Rights Act of 1965, concerns about voting constraints are galvanizing a new generation of activists in their quest to participate in the fundamental exercise of civic life that is at the heart of a resilient and inclusive democracy. This year’s commemoration of the laudable but incomplete extension of the franchise resonates particularly strongly as voters face a range of new risks–from potential Post Office delays to a lethal virus looming over in-person voting to onerous ID rules and reduced polling stations to foreign intervention and disinformation.
In his eulogy for the late civil rights leader John Lewis, who spent his entire life fighting for all Americans to participate as full citizens, former President Barack Obama said every American is “born with the instructions to form a more perfect union…What gives each new generation purpose is to take up the unfinished work of the last and carry it further than anyone might have thought possible.”
But the right to vote does not strengthen the foundations of a democracy if it is not exercised. Just a little over half of all eligible voters in the U.S. turn out for presidential elections. The U.S. ranks 26th out of 32 when it comes to its fellow OECD countries for which voter participation rates are available.
As we mark the centenary of the 19th Amendment, let us honor the memory of the countless Black, Asian, Latinx, Native American and white Americans through the ages who marched and mobilized, risking life, limb and freedom on behalf of “we, the people.” Let us also heed the words of Susan B. Anthony: “Someone struggled for your right to vote. Use it.”