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As women celebrate 100 years of vote, challenges for many others still remain

The nation’s lengthy struggle to enshrine women’s right to vote in the U.S. Constitution can be used to inform modern-day battles to ensure that long-ignored communities are guaranteed voting rights and full participation in U.S. democracy, according to panelists at “The 19th Amendment Then and Now: Lessons for the 21st Century,” held at the 2019 ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco. 

Panelists discuss the legacy of women's suffrage during the Annual Meeting program  “The 19th Amendment Then and Now: Lessons for the 21st Century.”

Panelists discuss the legacy of women's suffrage during the Annual Meeting program “The 19th Amendment Then and Now: Lessons for the 21st Century.”

Felons who have served their time, communities of color, the poor and women running for office are among those who still face significant hurdles to full enfranchisement, panelists agreed.

Moderated by NBC News justice correspondent Pete Williams, the panel discussion marked the kickoff of a yearlong observance by the ABA of the centennial of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which says that “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.” 

To mark next year’s 100th anniversary, the ABA 19th Amendment Commission, chaired by Judge M. Margaret McKeown of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, has planned a range of activities, including several conferences around the country and five exhibits on the suffrage movement touring the country.

In her opening remarks at the panel discussion on Aug. 9, ABA President-Elect Judy Perry Martinez called the 19th Amendment the “largest expansion of democracy in the history of our nation,” making it a “critical milestone for our democracy.”

But full enfranchisement still has a way to go, panelists said.

Judge Bernice B. Donald of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals pointed out that some members of the African-American community, which is disproportionally caught up in the criminal justice system, are foreclosed from fully participating in democracy because felons in many states who have served their time are barred by law from voting. “That’s a problem that I think all people should be concerned with,” she said.

Harmeet Dhillon, founder of the Dhillon Law Group and national committeewoman of the California Republican National Committee, addressed the hurdles faced by all women in getting involved in politics. In both parties, women are “being vilified and attacked” when they run for office, she said. The hostility acts as a deterrence when women contemplate running for office, she said. Donald pointed out that women of color often face “double the burden.”

The legacy of the 19th Amendment must endure, she added.

“The 19th Amendment recognized in its passage that the law does not on its own deliver the promise of equality and does not on its own deliver what a republic promises,” Donald said. “It is the men and women who must make sure of that first. It cannot rely on those who are denied to be the ones to advocate. Those of us who benefit and have that right must advocate for them.” 

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