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Politics

100 Years After Women's Suffrage, US Voters Still Face Countless Barriers

Native, formerly incarcerated, and immigrant women, among others, describe the obstacles that keep their communities from being fairly counted.
August 3, 2020, 6:26pm

100 years ago, American women legally gained the right to vote. Yet today, many women and non-binary people in the U.S.—and around the world—still aren't counted at the polls. The 19th in 2020 is a short series about some of the obstacles they face.

As it's commonly told, in 1920, the 19th Amendment granted American women the ability to vote. But the reality is more complicated.

In fact, the amendment was ratified in part because of the exclusionary rhetoric behind it; the women’s suffrage movement was undergirded by anti-Blackness and racism. In their paper Revolution, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady, who formed the National Woman Suffrage Association together in 1869, wrote, “[I]f you will not give the whole loaf of suffrage to the entire people, give it to the most intelligent first. If intelligence, justice, and morality are to have precedence in the government, let the question of the woman be brought up first and that of the negro last.”

As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, suggesting that it gave all women the right to vote is a slap in the face to those left out of its original plans. While white women were permitted to participate in the functions of the U.S. government, women of color didn’t actually gain those opportunities until years later. And even with voting rights made law, history shows time and time again that a word being written does not mean it is practiced. For example, individual states were allowed to decide if Native Americans could vote until the passing of the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act—and even then, it excluded those who lived on reservations.

In the years since the 19th Amendment’s passing, marginalized communities have been continually targeted with voter suppression, like reducing voting centers—a phenomenon that recently disproportionately impacted Milwaukee’s Black voters in the Wisconsin primary election—and voter ID laws. With the 2020 elections approaching, it’s important to be aware of what barriers still exist, particularly as they’re further heightened by the coronavirus pandemic.

Restrictive voting laws heavily impact Native communities in the U.S.

With the passing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Native Americans were guaranteed the right to vote—in theory. But the National Congress of American Indians said the turnout rate among registered Native voters is still one to ten percentage points lower than that of any other racial group. There are a number of reasons for this disparity, including decades of purposeful disenfranchisement.

The Brennan Center found that restrictive voting laws throughout the country heavily impact Native communities and, for many, voting ID laws posed the most issues. In 2017, the Native American Rights Fund and two North Dakota Tribes sued the state over one such law that required a physical address to vote. Noting that Native people disproportionately lack street addresses, since many reservations don’t use them, the lawsuit said the requirement “denies qualified voters equal protection under the law in violation of the North Dakota Constitution.”

Other barriers arise before people even make it to the polls to show an ID. About 22 percent of Native Americans and Alaska Natives live on reservations or other trust lands, which are often rural. This translates to such a severe lack of election resources that many Native people don’t even consider heading to the polls. In 2017, the Native American Voting Rights Coalition survey found that 32 percent of respondents in South Dakota said the long-distance travel required to register impacted their decision not to do so.

Often, voter suppression translates to a lack of representation among elected officials. If it was proportionate to Native populations, Congress would have two Native Senators and eight Native members of the House, according to PBS News. Instead, there are no Native Senators, and only four members of the house are Native American.

“I can speak from the heart about the fact that Indian Country doesn’t have electricity, running water, or broadband internet services in some areas because I’ve lived that,” Congresswoman Deb Haaland, a Laguna Pueblo tribal member, told PBS. “Those are the things that representation brings.”

Language barriers, cultural insensitivity, and more keep many immigrants away from the polls

In 2016, the Pew Research Center reported that the United States has more immigrants than any other country in the world: an estimated 46.6 million people. Of those, 10.5 to 12 million are undocumented. Since the U.S. doesn’t allow non-citizens to vote, that means roughly 3 percent of the population is unable to participate in elections. And for immigrants who can vote, lack of available translated materials, lower access to voter education resources, confusion around voter ID laws, and cultural insensitivity on the part of poll workers can all act as significant barriers.

Community organizer Isra Daraiseh observes elections in Detroit, a city with a significant Muslim population and the largest Arab community in the U.S. Once, she said she watched as an election worker asked a woman in niqab for her ID, then requested that the woman remove her niqab to make sure that she matched the photo. “This may sound miniscule, it also may sound reasonable,” Daraiseh said, “however, in Michigan, not only do you not have to [remove your niqab], but you can even vote without showing photo ID by signing an affidavit and getting a regular ballot.”

In this case, Daraiseh was able to step in and advocate for the woman who originally wanted to just leave. But, the story captures how obstacles to voting can show up even after you make it all the way into a voting facility. “The voter application is in English,” Daraiseh said, “the ballot is in English, most resources out there are in English—and when they’re translated, they are extremely technical and miss the point.”

Finding solutions to these problems starts with the secretaries of state offices listening more to immigrant communities, who typically already know what they need, Daraiseh said. She also recommends recruiting bilingual election workers who are reflective of the communities they’re in, including political education in programming, and legislation to allow translated ballots will help.

“The more these barriers exist, the harder it is to get our communities out to vote,” Daraiseh said. “Many of our immigrant and BIPOC clients and community members already have a thwarted view of the voting system. When we, as trusted community members and organizations, finally get them to register and believe again, they end up facing other barrier after barrier, further stigmatizing the process and leaving them feeling powerless and frustrated, once again.”

Childcare access remains a significant—yet underdiscussed—obstacle

Childcare is rarely considered in conversations around voter suppression. But for those without access to it, it can be a huge obstacle on voting day. In the United States, childcare is unaffordable for most families. “Lack of childcare is only one out of many issues that make it difficult for low-income communities to vote,” said HK Gray, an organizer with Advocates For Youth.

“I’ve never missed the opportunity to vote in any election but… I often end up voting with a baby on my hip, most of the time while she’s throwing temper tantrums,” Gray said. “This causes me to rush or sometimes having to quit mid-voting and come back the next day. It’s exhausting and I can understand why some parents choose to not vote at all, and why low-income communities have such low voter turnouts when this is just one issue working against them.”

With the coronavirus pandemic, bringing children could add more potential vectors of disease to the voting process. After Wisconsin held its in-person primary elections, over fifty people who worked at the polls or voted in person tested positive for the coronavirus. Gray’s state still requires in-person voting and, she said, “The idea of potentially having to bring my three year old child with me to vote in a pandemic sounds straight out of a nightmare.”

For Gray, the solution here is easy: There needs to be federal funding for daycares. And there’s no need for politicians to hem and hawl about where that money will come from. “Defund the police and redistribute the tax money to help fund preschool and K-12 schooling,” she said.

Incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people are frequently blocked from voting

The American criminal justice system holds almost 2.3 million people, and incarceration rates for women have risen faster than for men for decades. Currently, voting rights for people who have been convicted of a felony vary widely from state to state, but are for the most part either severely limited or encumbered by obstacles. In 11 states, being convicted of certain felonies means losing voting rights forever, and in 21 states and the District of Columbia, people convicted of felonies are denied the right to vote both while incarcerated and while on probation or parole.

Faylita Hicks, a formerly incarcerated writer based in Texas, spent 45 days in pretrial detention in Hays, a rural Texas county, for a failure to appear warrant after a $25 check bounced at a local grocery store. Hayes’ experiences inspired her to join Mano Amiga, a local nonprofit, to prevent anyone from experiencing an arrest like hers. Through her work, Hicks has seen just how difficult voting can be for formerly incarcerated people, even if they haven’t been convicted of a felony.

Poverty can also affect the level of information that communities receive. The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition found that most women incarcerated in Texas earn under $600 per month immediately prior to their incarceration. Hicks, who lives in an income-based property, hasn’t gotten a single notification about upcoming election dates, local candidates, or opportunities to volunteer in two years. “Why not deliver non-partisan education pamphlets to each apartment complex and/or drop them off at the local post office for distribution?”

Beyond information, there are also issues when it comes to transportation. If you’re poor, you’re less likely to have your own vehicle, but public transportation may not be reliable. “Where I live, there is no regularly running bus that covers the more rural parts of the county,” Hicks said. “With only a handful of voting locations and, as a result, an increase in voter wait-times, catching a bus to a voting place is possible—but getting home will be extremely cumbersome.”