The picketers began to appear at the White House gates in January, carrying banners emblazoned with barbs for a president entangled in an overseas war: “Democracy Begins At Home.” The year was 1917. Their protest lasted 18 months. During that time, 218 women were arrested on specious charges like “obstructing traffic”; 97 were jailed. Many were beaten, threatened, mistreated, and force-fed. Their “ringleader,” Alice Paul, was held in solitary confinement and denied counsel.
The women—demonized by the media, often dismissed by those in power—were fighting for their constitutional right to vote. Their struggle ended 86 years ago today, when Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby signed into law the 19th Amendment, which stated that the right to vote could not be denied or abridged in the United States on the basis of sex—years after similar laws had passed in New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Russia, and Kyrgyzstan.
Now, once again, the United States is behind the times in protecting its citizens’ right to vote, cited by the United Nations Human Rights Committee for having the worst record in the free world when it comes to felon disenfranchisement. While countries as diverse as the Czech Republic, Denmark, Israel, Japan, Kenya, and Peru continue to permit individuals to vote even in prison, in the U.S. 48 of our 50 states strip the right to vote from anyone with a felony conviction for varying periods of. Because felon disenfranchisement laws differ greatly across the nation, an alarming amount of misinformation surrounds them: Many eligible voters are convinced they cannot vote or prevented from voting. In New York State for example, an individual loses the right to vote only if she has been convicted of a felony and is currently incarcerated or on parole. Yet 40 percent of those who have been arrested, and close to 40 percent of elections officials, mistakenly believe that you cannot vote while on probation. In practice, this can mean that a mother sent to jail for a joint 20 years ago may still believe she can’t vote, or a father on probation for changing the expiration on a temporary license plate may be illegally barred from casting his ballot.
Our current patchwork of felon disenfranchisement laws, like pre-19th Amendment election laws, unjustly removes a particular body of citizens from participating in the political process. These laws would be unfair in any criminal justice system, even one without the profound disparities in ours. Although the Federal Household Survey found that 72 percent of current illicit drug users are white, over 94 percent of those serving sentences in New York State under the Rockefeller drug laws are Black and Latino. Most of the 16,000 people serving sentences under these laws have never been convicted of a violent offense. They’re imprisoned by a system that does not offer adequate alternatives to incarceration, removes sentencing discretion from trial judges, and allows the state legislature to renew harsh mandatory minimum sentences. Nationwide, sentencing trends like these have created a country where one in three black men between the ages of 20 and 29 is under correctional supervision or control.
As a result, felon disenfranchisement severely dilutes the power of poor communities of color to hold elected officials accountable. The laws perpetuate the legacy of discrimination that those fighting for the 19th Amendment worked so hard end.
Now, it is unthinkable that so many doubted the ability of women to participate meaningfully in our democracy. Eighty-six years ago “suffragette” was a slur, dismissing the activists it described as “unwomanly.” In 1920, Tennessee was the 36th and last state needed to ratify the proposed 19th Amendment. As the vote came to the floor on August 18, one young male delegate was poised to vote against it. At the last moment, he received a note from his mother admonishing him to change his mind. Suddenly, the women he would be disenfranchising were no longer anonymous. He cast the deciding ballot—in favor of the amendment.
We can no longer dehumanize people with felony convictions as “criminals” undeserving of their rights. These “faceless” men and women are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and neighbors. They are the people who ride the bus with us, who share our tax burden, and who send their children to our schools. We must ask ourselves, as a nation, whether we would want to be judged by our single worst act, and denied all opportunity to affect the laws that impact our lives and our families. Now as before, democracy must begin at home.
Amalea Smirniotopoulos is the executive assistant and Maggie Williams is the project director of the Voter Enfranchisement Project at the Bronx Defenders.