For Women’s Equality Day, A Call to Use Your Right to Vote

On August 18, 1920, Congress ratified the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and on August 26, 1920, it was certified: “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.”

It had taken 72 years: In 1848, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott convened the first women’s rights convention in U.S. history at Seneca Falls, this resolution was passed: “Resolved, That it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.”

People in power would not be trying so hard to keep us from voting if our votes weren’t powerful. We must not give up that power.

Of 12 resolutions, it was the only one that was not passed unanimously. Although leaders such as Sojourner Truth, Mary McClintock, Susan B. Anthony, and Frederick Douglass supported a resolution demanding women’s right to vote, many other attendees thought such a resolution might be a bridge too far. But by 1920, after women had marched, rallied, and faced abuse and arrest, several states had already adopted women’s suffrage.

In 1971, the newly elected Rep. Bella Abzug proposed observing August 26 as Women’s Equality Day to commemorate women’s suffrage, and a joint resolution of Congress made it so. But getting the right to vote cannot be considered a victory if we do not exercise that right. In the 2016 election, only 58 percent of registered voters actually cast a ballot. Although Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 2.9 million votes, she trailed President Obama’s 2008 votes by 3.4 million. According to National Public Radio:

… turnout rates dropped by 1.3 percent in Iowa, 3 percent in Wisconsin and nearly 4 percent in Ohio in 2016, a combination that became a death knell for Clinton’s presidential hopes in areas where Obama performed well during his two terms.

Why did voter turnout decrease so much? Let’s not forget that 2016 was the first presidential election since the Supreme Court struck down the oversight provision of the Voting Rights Act that had required certain states to get federal approval for any change in state election law. We usually think of the Voting Rights Act as applying to Southern states, but Arizona was also on the list of states requiring heightened oversight. The loss of this oversight resulted in the sudden closing of many polling places, most notably in Maricopa County, where 200 polling places in 2012 had been cut to 60 for the 2016 presidential primary, with almost all of these cuts in Latino-majority areas.

This election also saw misinformation and “fake news” become weapons as foreign and perhaps also domestic groups sought to influence the outcome. Throughout her campaign, there may have been carefully targeted cyber-attacks against Clinton using geographic data and tactics like planting fake news stories where they would be widely shared.

But there were also people who stayed home because they didn’t “like” Hillary Clinton, and wouldn’t vote for Donald Trump. There were also many people who simply didn’t vote for president, or voted for third-party candidates. But the fact remains, there were people who were willing to let a narcissistic, racist, misogynistic, lying sexual predator with no public service experience become president because they didn’t like the smart girl. Personally, I supported Bernie Sanders in the primaries, but worked to elect Clinton in the general election. I fully expected that by this time I would be pushing her to support liberal policies and fighting the corporate wing of the Democratic party.

Unfortunately, like many others, I underestimated the degree of sexism at play behind the electoral defeat of Hillary Clinton. In Seneca Falls in 1848, some political progressives were not ready to demand women’s right to vote. And across the United States in 2016, too many political progressives were not ready for a woman president. I know they would not put it like that, but the degree of personal animosity against Clinton I heard from friends and from people I spoke to while phone banking went far beyond a dislike of what she stood for.

A confession here: I never voted for president until 2004, though I voted in down-ballot races. I felt that by the time a candidate reached the point they were running for president, they had compromised their integrity away, and the system was rigged so only a certain kind of person could run. George W. Bush convinced me that who was president mattered. Perhaps it was simply how radical the Republican party had become, but I could no longer afford to be finicky. There was no longer a moral equivalency between presidential candidates, and in 2016 the contrast between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump could not have been more stark.

Voter turnout is always high in the black community because they remember how people suffered and even died to get the right to vote, yet even that declined in 2016, perhaps because more and more states are passing laws that make it harder for people to vote, with voter ID laws and less access to early voting, among other things — laws that mostly affect poor, elderly, and minority voters.

We all must remember how much those who came before us sacrificed to get the right to vote. We cannot take our right to vote for granted, or complain that our votes don’t mean anything. People in power would not be trying so hard to keep us from voting if our votes weren’t powerful. We must not give up that power.

Here in Arizona, some localities are having primary elections on August 29. If you live in one of them, remember to vote to honor those whose sacrifices made it possible.