We often hear that “voting is a right,” or that “voting is a privilege.”
While scholars do not agree about the classification of this act, all can agree that voting is fundamental to our democratic process.
And although the struggle for the right to vote seemed to have been accomplished, recent legislation in certain states has made accessibility to voting more cumbersome. This is inexplicable in today’s global economy, and with today’s technology, where accessibility to voting should be getting easier, not harder. As challenges to these restrictive voting laws move forward, it is appropriate to reflect on the struggle for the right to vote.
I often wish I could ask my grandmother, who was born in 1892, what it was like to be an adult, and yet, not be allowed to vote. What it was like to marry, raise a family, and manage a household, and yet not be able to cast a ballot for the president of the United States. Women were disenfranchised under the law in many ways until the late 20th century, but we sometimes forget that this basic “right” – this “privilege” – this way to participate in our democracy – was not available to women in the United States a century ago.
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This year, 2015, marks the 95th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment; carefully consider its words: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Simple words, but it took a long time to get this amendment ratified in 1920. Along the way there were partnerships forged with other repressed groups, women’s conventions at the state and national levels, demonstrations and legislative advocacy, hunger strikes, and lawsuits.
One such court challenge occurred many years before 1920. On October 15, 1872, Virginia Minor, a Missouri citizen, applied to be registered as a lawful voter in her home state. Minor was denied because she was not a male citizen, and the case ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court. In the 1875 case of Minor v. Happersett, she argued that in the aftermath of the Civil War, the recently passed 14th Amendment (granting universal citizenship) and 15th Amendment (granting the vote irrespective of race) when viewed together served to guarantee voting rights to women. The Court did not agree that women had the right to vote. The court held that women were already citizens, that this did not confer the right of suffrage, and that the 14th Amendment had done nothing to change this. Fortunately, with an overdue push by President Woodrow Wilson, the right for women to vote came about by legislative action and the ensuing ratification by the states of the 15th Amendment.
After law school, I had the good fortune to clerk for Judge Clifton E. Johnson on the North Carolina Court of Appeals. Judge Johnson, an African-American, was the first graduate of N.C. Central University School of Law to sit on that bench. As part of Judge Johnson’s interview process, applicants were asked if they voted, and Judge Johnson always had this verified with the Board of Elections before he completed his hiring each year. His explanation was simple: it was our duty as citizens, and many people had worked with all their being to make certain we all had that right, and we were obligated to exercise that right.
And so I vote. I vote not just for me, but for those who came before me – like my grandmother and Judge Johnson – and for those who will come after me.
Lydia Lavelle is an assistant professor of law at N.C. Central University and is running unopposed for re-election as mayor of Carrboro.