US history

Obstacles to universal suffrage

That was then (February 27, 1922)

The 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution is brief and to the point:

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.

Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

The amendment was passed in the House of Representatives on May 21, 1919 and by the Senate on June 4, 1919. It was ratified by the required three-quarters of state legislatures on August 18, 1920 when Tennessee became the thirty-sixth state to ratify the new amendment. President Woodrow Wilson had pushed hard for the amendment to be passed and persisted even when the proposed amendment came to a vote in the Senate and was voted down twice before being brought to a vote a third time and passed by a vote of 56 ayes and 25 nays. Members of both political parties and many states were eager to have the obstacle to universal suffrage removed before the 1920 elections. Not everyone, however, was eager to extend voting rights to women, even after the amendment had been ratified and signed into law. On October 12, 1920, two women named Cecilia Streett Waters and Mary D. Randolph, both citizens of Maryland, registered to vote in the city of Baltimore. In an attempt to have the names of the two women stricken from the list of eligible voters, a Baltimore lawyer named Oscar Leser initiated a lawsuit that was eventually decided by the Supreme Court. The basis of Mr. Leser’s case was threefold. He argued that

  1. The amendment resulted in a dramatic increase in, approximately doubling, the number of eligible voters and that such a dramatic change in the electorate was not in the purview of the federal government but that suffrage should be decided individually by each of the states.
  2. Several states, including Maryland, had state constitutions that limited suffrage to adult males.
  3. The ratifying resolutions of Tennessee and of West Virginia were invalid, because they had been adopted in violation of the rules of legislative procedure prevailing in the respective states.

By a unanimous decision of the Justices of the Supreme Court, all three of those arguments were overturned. The three arguments made by Mr. Leser were decided as follows:

  1. The 19th Amendment is almost identical to the 15th Amendment, the difference being that the 15th granted suffrage to all men “regardless of race, color or previous conditions of servitude.” That amendment, which dramatically increased the electorate, had been in place for fifty years and was established law. An amendment that extended the electorate through similar wording had been accepted as being within the purview of the federal government. The judgment, read by Associate Justice Louis Brandeis, was that for the 15th and the 19th Amendments “the same method of adoption was pursued. One cannot be valid and the other invalid. That the Fifteenth is valid, although rejected by six states, including Maryland, has been recognized and acted on for half a century.”
  2. The process of ratifying an amendment to the Constitution is a federal matter and thus overturns provisions in state laws. In the wording of the judgment, “the function of a state Legislature in ratifying a proposed amendment to the federal Constitution, like the function of Congress in proposing the amendment, is a federal function derived from the federal Constitution; and it transcends any limitations sought to be imposed by the people of a state.”
  3. The point concerning Tennessee and West Virginia is of no consequence, since by March 29, 1920, all forty-eight states had ratified the amendment. Even if Tennessee and West Virginia’s ratifications were declared invalid, the required three-quarters of state legislatures had ratified the amendment. In fact, however, the states of Tennessee and West Virginia had the power to consider ratifying the amendment and had done so, and the ratifications had been certified and were therefor binding.

According to the Supreme Court decision of February 27, 1922, not only were the registrations of the two women in Maryland allowed to stand, but no state can pass laws abridging the right of an adult citizen to vote on account of gender.

Oscar Leser, incidentally, was eventually appointed Justice of the Supreme Bench of Baltimore City and unsuccessfully ran two years later as Republican candidate for the United States Senate. I have not been able to find information on what percentage of the votes cast by women he received.

This is now (early 21st century)

Although the right of women to vote is no longer contested, the issue of voter eligibility in general continues to be hotly debated and divisive. Some politicians are concerned that there is widespread voter fraud that can be prevented only by having stricter laws requiring people to provide proof of their identity. As of February 27, 2017 there are seven states that require a voter to show a photo ID in order to register and in order to vote: Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin. The states of California, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming, and Washington, D.C. do not require any identification at the ballot box. Laws vary in other states.

Opponents to strict photo ID laws argue that such laws suppress the vote and are especially onerous for lower-income people or working people who have limited access during normal working hours to offices where such photo identification documents are obtained. Most of the states requiring photo or non-photo ID documents have state legislatures controlled by Republicans, and much of the legislation closely follows language drafted by The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a non-profit conservative organization that proposes to states that they adopt legislation in many areas; their proposed legislation concerning voter identification, whatever its intended consequences might be, would almost surely have the consequence of making voting more difficult for students, the elderly, and the poor. While there is a general cry among conservatives to honor the Constitution, it appears that the parts of the Constitution guaranteeing that all adult citizens have a a reasonable access to voting have less than enthusiastic implementation in some states that have elected conservative Republican legislatures.

Author: Dayamati Richard Hayes

Jemez Springs, NM, USA

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