This is a historic election, which is super exciting. Having a woman as a major party candidate is a big deal, I agree. But if I see one more person blathering on about how ‘all women’ got the right to vote in 1920, I am going to punch a watermelon, and damn the consequences. Please stop saying this. It is wrong, and it is easily disproved. More importantly, people who say it are erasing the very real struggles of people who have been fighting for voting rights for centuries — because yes, some people still don’t have the right to vote, and I’m not just talking about underage citizens.
So yes, in 1920, ‘women’ were extended the right to vote in state and federal elections. (Some states allowed women to vote before that point.) That sounds like everyone should have been able to vote, right?
Wrong. Not all women gained the franchise in 1920, and in fact, some men couldn’t vote then either. Voting rights did not include people of colour and many disabled people, among certain other classes of individuals. I bring this up not to be pedantic, but because it is important. 1920 was about securing the vote for white women, as long as they met certain standards. When people don’t admit this, it neatly cleans up US history, making it seem all nice and shiny, when we should be talking very openly about this. Limitations on voting rights played an incredibly important role in the political development of the United States, with many people unable to participate in processes that affected them. This has had a tremendous legacy for everyone in the United States, shaping everything from legislation to who runs for president and when.
Using 1920 as an arbitrary benchmark on the basis of the Constitution may be convenient, but it is incorrect. We shouldn’t be celebrating that date, because it doesn’t represent universal suffrage. Even among those who understand this, there’s a reluctance to engage with those facts. Doing so makes people who are still fighting for voting rights, as well as those who know that they or their ancestors couldn’t vote until the mid-century of even later, feel erased and invisible, left out of history, unimportant. And doing so means that you don’t understand and engage with the historical issues that colour subjects like voting rights legislation and caselaw today.
So here’s a more realistic timeline of voting rights in the United States, because you should know the real facts of history.
It wasn’t until 1947 that Native Americans were (theoretically) allowed to vote, after they filed suit in an attempt to get the franchise despite the fact that the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 was supposed to assure their voting rights. This was the culmination of decades of work and arguments with the government over their status as citizens.
In 1952, Asian-Americans were allowed to become citizens: Prior to that point, they hadn’t been allowed to vote. Decades of discrimination against Asian-Americans, including the Chinese Exclusion Act and the camps of the Second World War, contributed to systemic anti-Asian racism that made this an incredibly hard-fought victory.
It wasn’t until 1961 that Washington, D.C. residents were allowed to participate in presidential elections. Washington is a majority-Black city.
In 1965, the Voting Rights Act theoretically secured voting rights for people of colour in the US, especially Black citizens who fought barriers like poll taxes, literacy tests, and other measures used to keep them from the polls. The passage of the VRA by no means secured universal suffrage, though, especially after the Supreme Court gutted a key provision in 2013.
In 1971, the voting age was lowered to 18. To this day, people under 18 cannot vote, except in very special circumstances, primarily 17-year-olds voting in primaries if they will be 18 by the time of the general election.
In 1972, durational residency tests were barred, allowing people to vote anywhere as long as they had lived there for at least 30 days. Prior to that point, in some regions of the US, people had to be resident for at least a year before being permitted to vote.
In 2009, legislation removed barriers to voter registration for Americans serving overseas with the military.
Think voting rights are available to everyone now? Think again.
Residents of US protectorates and territories cannot participate in federal elections, though they can be involved in the nominating process.
Nearly six million felons and ex-felons are barred from the polls by felon disenfranchisement laws, which the Supreme Court affirmed were legal in 1974.
Disabled people under guardianship are not permitted to vote.
Regressive immigration policy and barriers to citizenship mean that millions of people who work and live in the United States, paying taxes and participating in society, cannot vote.
Members of the homeless community, while guaranteed the right to vote under caselaw, often struggle to register and participate in elections due to their lack of fixed addresses and peripatetic lives.
Millions of Americans who fail to meet the standards of restrictive voter ID and other voter suppression laws are powerless to participate in the political process.
The next time someone tells you that ‘everyone’ could vote in 1920, reflect on this, because it’s important. Push people to be more accurate. Force them to acknowledge that even today, there are many people in the United States who cannot vote.
Image: phgaillard2001, Flickr