This week, Making Every Vote Count is taking a look at the monumental advances in the right to vote for people in this country over the past century. With Monday marking 231 years since the signing of the U.S. Constitution, it’s important to look at how our founding document has changed. The continued expansion of the franchise is among the most frequent reasons amendments to the Constitution have been proposed and enacted. Today, amidst a national moment of reckoning with society’s treatment of women, it’s striking to remember that barely 100 years ago – a few generations – women could not vote in this country.
Blood, sweat, and tears were the true measures of the great sacrifices that women suffragists made so that women in this country would be guaranteed the right to vote in all U.S. elections, though in practice Black men and women remained violently blocked from the ballot until 1965. Yet today, many Americans, including women, often do not vote (nearly 50% of voter-age Americans did not in the 2016 election). In both the 2012 and 2016 election, turnout by voting-eligible men trailed women by only 4 percent.
Can we blame entirely citizens who see no reason to vote for president? Certainly not. The simple truth is that, despite the right to vote now possessed by more people than ever before, fewer voters today see a reason to vote, and nowhere is that clearer than in the election for president. So many votes are rendered inconsequential by the winner-take-all method states use to assign electors that voters in states with 80 percent of the country’s population become irrelevant in every presidential contest and are effectively excluded from the decision-making process. Voters are being left behind.
Is this why suffragists marched? Is this why 33 suffragists were arrested protesting in front of the White House in 1917, beaten, and tortured by their male jailers? So that the votes of millions of Americans for whom they advocated could be systematically discarded by an unfair system?
Such civil disobedience was declared unpatriotic by the enemies of suffrage, an accusation magnified by America’s involvement in World War I. But through citizen-led action advanced by women, as well as the contributions of women to the war effort, women wrested the right to vote from the clutching hands of the patriarchal society that had told them to know their place. With the passage and enactment of the 19th Amendment in 1920, women, at the ballot-box, at last possessed the voting power to sway the decisions of their representatives in government.
The women who were thrown into the Virginia prison and tortured were among the many protestors, all women’s suffrage groups, which were the first citizens to ever protest in front of the White House. Had they not made such bold sacrifices, it is hard to imagine that women’s suffrage would have come about by Constitutional decree as soon as 1920; it nevertheless faced steep resistance and was only narrowly ratified by the states. It all came down to a single vote in the Tennessee legislature which provided the number of states required for it to become law.
Our current dysfunctional system is not merely an inconvenience; it is an injustice that we must correct. The simplest way to correct a broken process that ignores so many women’s voices is to make sure every vote matters equally in a presidential contest through a national popular vote.