Women and the vote: For women of color, the fight’s not over

Why We Wrote This

On the precipice of a historic election, here’s a look at how the demographics and values of female voters have evolved since the 19th Amendment.

PATRICK T. FALLON/LEAGUE OF WOMEN VOTERS
Demonstrators led by Alma Couverthie (right) cross the street during a League of Women Voters march in Pasadena, California, on Feb. 14, 2020.

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The 19th Amendment gave many women – but not all – the right to vote. In the century since, an increasingly diverse range of women have become active voters. 

During the 2018 midterms, 53% of voters were women. Since 2000, the number of registered voters who are nonwhite women has increased by 59%, according to the Center for American Progress. 

Still, political disengagement persists. This is sometimes attributed to logistical barriers, such as a lack of polling sites or strict voter ID requirements, which disproportionately affect people of color. Such hurdles, combined with a history of exclusion, can also lead to feelings of doubt or resentment toward the act of voting itself, experts say.

Alma Couverthie of the League of Women Voters says encouragement may come from those most politically disenfranchised.

“One of the most effective and powerful voter registration [volunteers] I have met was an undocumented Salvadoran woman,” she says. “She would be very honest about the fact that she could not vote, and that's why she needed everyone that could to go and do it.”

This is sometimes called a “love vote,” she adds.

When she was growing up in Puerto Rico, Alma Couverthie says Election Day was a celebration.

There were caravans playing music, and people combed through towns to make sure everyone was registered to vote. Her whole family, including her younger brothers, came along when she got her electoral ID card.

“It’s very different from the [mainland] United States,” she says. “That environment is what makes people go out to vote more than anything else. ... It is the acknowledgment of our role in democracy.”

Today, Ms. Couverthie serves as the national organizing director of the League of Women Voters, an organization established in 1920 to help American women harness their new political power after the 19th Amendment gave many – but not all – the right to vote. 

In the century since, an increasingly diverse range of women have become active voters. During the 2018 midterms, 53% of voters were women; since 2000, the number of registered voters who are nonwhite women has increased by 59%, according to the Center for American Progress. 

However, a landmark survey released this year by the Knight Foundation also found that women make up more than half of the most politically disengaged Americans, and this is even truer for nonwhite women. 

Disengagement is a double-sided issue, sometimes attributed to logistical barriers, such as a lack of polling sites or strict voter ID requirements, which disproportionately affect people of color. But such hurdles, combined with a history of exclusion, can also lead to feelings of doubt or resentment toward the act of voting itself, experts say.

“The political system has been set up in a way where certain kinds of people are systematically excluded, and people of all kinds really have seen that governmental responsiveness has declined in recent decades,” says Hahrie Han, director of the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University and professor of political science. 

Actions like participating in a Facebook group or signing an online petition may seem more accessible or meaningful than voting, she adds. “People are more likely to come off the sidelines if they feel like their participation matters.”

Nonwhite women have historically been sidelined by voting rights movements. While Black women were early leaders in the suffrage movement, and many white suffragists believed that the 19th Amendment would ultimately empower all women, racism within the movement was pervasive. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who launched the women’s rights movement, often argued that middle-class white women were more deserving of the vote than Black men.

In a 1913 demonstration, Black women were asked to march separately to avoid angering the Southern supporters. Investigative journalist and activist Ida B. Wells refused to be segregated and took her place among allies in the Illinois delegation. However, Wells and other Black women did not continue working with the National American Woman Suffrage Association after the parade, focusing instead on racial justice work that included voting rights and anti-lynching legislation. Racial terror campaigns prevented Black women from utilizing their vote until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. 

Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory since 1898, but its population of 3.2 million still can’t vote for president. Today, marginalized communities across the country are often stripped of political power through gerrymandering and other forms of voter suppression.

No vote, no shame

It’s a lesson Miranda Mishan has learned over the past year while working as a community development policy coordinator at Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA) in Portland, Oregon. After the 2016 presidential election, people were eager to shame those who didn’t vote, she says. 

“I was sort of open to that kind of attitude, but since I’ve been at NAYA, I try to be more patient,” says Ms. Mishan, a Chickasaw Nation citizen who also identifies as Muscogee Creek. “No one who is Native decided to be American and be a part of this civic government, so if they don’t want to engage civically, it’s something I respect and I understand.”

Native Americans didn’t have the opportunity to vote until four years after the 19th Amendment, when the 1924 Snyder Act granted citizenship to all Native Americans born in the U.S. And, like African Americans, they didn’t truly secure the right to vote in every state until decades later. According to 2010 census data, the turnout rate among Native Americans and Native Alaskans voters has been lower than other U.S. racial or ethnic groups by as many as 10 percentage points, though recent research suggests the gap may be shrinking.

Ms. Mishan focuses on removing the logistical barriers for NAYA clients who do want to vote, whether by running a registration form to the post office or helping compile information about candidates. 

NAYA also houses the Portland Youth and Elders Council, a grassroots group that meets monthly. The council organizes conversations with local officials and other opportunities for the community to stay informed about political issues, regardless of voting status.

A reason to engage

Carina Miller, a Warm Springs tribal member who grew up on the Warm Springs Reservation in rural Oregon, understands the power of a handful of votes. In the last tribal council election, one of the candidates lost to her own father by three votes. That’s not unusual for tribal governments, she says, where leaders tend to be male elders.

Ms. Miller says that Native people may be less motivated to vote in national and state elections, considering the painful history of colonization and controversial policies like voter ID laws. But she also sees a need for more Native American policymakers, and is currently running for the Oregon State Senate.

“I kind of am on this spectrum where I’m like, ‘Come on, tribal people, we need to vote.’ And I’m like, ‘Come on, politicians, we need to do better and give tribal people a reason to vote,’” says Ms. Miller.

Ms. Couverthie, from the League of Women Voters, says encouragement may come from those most politically disenfranchised.

“One of the most effective and powerful voter registration [volunteers] I have met was an undocumented Salvadoran woman,” she says. “She would be very honest about the fact that she could not vote, and that’s why she needed everyone that could to go and do it.”

This is sometimes called a “love vote,” she adds.

There are more than 700 local leagues in the country. Ms. Couverthie hopes that by working with “trusted messengers” who are already integrated in communities, her organization can boost enthusiasm around voting. And despite the shortcomings of the 19th Amendment, Ms. Couverthie still draws inspiration from the sacrifices of those early suffragists.

“We cannot forget that even though it was an imperfect win, it took 72 years to get there, and that the women who started fighting so that we all could vote did not see it come to fruition,” she says. 

“Remembering that history and where we come from is very important, because we still have a lot of work to do to make sure that everyone has the same rights.”

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