Last month we commemorated Women’s Equality Day —the date on which the 19th Amendment was certified in 1920, finally giving women all across the United States the legal right to vote.
The 19th Amendment did not simply come into being—it was the culmination of decades of organizing, protesting, and pushing for change by African American women like Sojourner Truth, Mary Church Terrell, and Ida B. Wells. But passage of the amendment didn’t signal instant progress for African American women voters, who spent decades more fighting every conceivable indignity – from poll taxes and literacy tests to physical violence – to keep them from exercising their voice at the ballot box.
We have made indisputable progress toward a more inclusive and representative electorate, particularly with the passing of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, but with the striking down of a key section of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court just last year and a recent wave of new voter restrictions passed in states across the country, we are sliding backwards.
It is no mystery why GOP-controlled legislatures are making it more difficult to vote. The very people who are most likely to be affected by these new restrictive laws are the same ones who helped elect President Obama in 2008 and 2012. They are also the voters who will make the difference in 2014 and again in 2016—especially in a swing state like Ohio.
Ohio Governor John Kasich and Secretary of State Jon Husted didn’t need a Supreme Court decision to inconvenience voters just enough to nudge the electorate in their party’s favor. In the past year alone, these Republican office holders and their allies in the state legislature have sought to eliminate Sunday and evening early voting, same-day voter registration opportunities, and restrict access to absentee voting for some Ohioans. A federal judge has once again been forced to step in and put these changes on hold, but it’s tough to say where the chips will fall with less than two months to go before Election Day.
These laws disproportionately affect voters of color, the economically disadvantaged, and are especially tough on women. In Ohio, as in every state across America, low income households are more often than not headed by women. Of the almost 600,000 households headed by women in the state, 36 percent are living below the poverty line—a situation compounded by the reality that Ohio women overall are paid 77 cents for every dollar paid to men. Those numbers are even worse for African American women who earn just 65 cents on the dollar.
Working mothers—who return home from the job to a “second shift” of childcare—will no doubt be hard-hit by these restrictions. Parents who juggle work and family have less flexibility in their schedules and in their childcare arrangements. Limiting their access to a voting booth they were already struggling to find time to visit won’t make our country any stronger and it won’t make it any more equal.
And these attacks on ballot access aren’t just happening in Ohio.
In the past year, Republican governors have signed a slew of restrictive voting laws that disproportionately affect women, young people, working families, and African Americans, and other minority communities. It’s no coincidence, perhaps, that the voters most impacted by these policies are the same ones that Republican candidates just can’t seem to sway at the polls. Candidates like Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who is now running for governor against Wendy Davis. Over half the states previously covered by the federal preclearance provision—including Abbott’s Texas—implemented new voting restrictions immediately following the court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act. Abbott didn’t even wait a day after the decision to announce that the state would implement a voter ID law that federal court had previously blocked for being too restrictive.
We know our democracy works best when every citizen has the opportunity to make their voice heard. That’s why these voting restrictions are so damaging—making it harder for certain citizens to participate in the process means their voice may not be heard, and we will be left with a government that does not represent their interests in the halls of power.
We cannot allow history to repeat itself. We must work to shape a future in which everyone can vote and have their say. And to do that we need to make voting easier, not harder.
Women have always played a leading role in politics, even before we could vote, and we play a leading role to this day. African American women voters have proven to be the key to Democratic success in 2008 and 2012, and can be a key to the success of Democratic in 2014 if we exercise the rights secured by decades of work by suffragettes and civil rights activists. But this isn’t just about politics – it is about equality, justice and the right to participate fully in our democracy. Women’s Equality Day may have been on August 26, but history tells us that sometimes we have to fight for our rights again and again –it’s time to establish a new day of equality at the voting booth on November 4.