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August 10, 2019

Centennial anniversary of 19th Amendment on horizon, yet fight for voting rights far from over, says panel

The modern legacy of the long struggle to obtain the right to vote for all female U.S. citizens was the subject of a panel discussion on Aug. 9 at the American Bar Association Annual Meeting in San Francisco, touching on the restoration of the right to vote for felons who have served their time, the debate over voter suppression versus voter fraud and the hostility facing women electoral candidates.  

2019 Annual Meeting
The 19th Amendment Then and Now: Lessons for the 21st Century

Moderated by NBC News justice correspondent Pete Williams, panelists engaged in a lively discussion that quickly took off from the historical achievement of the suffragists’ decades-long battle to achieve the largest expansion of democracy in American history. That battle extended from the famous 1848 Seneca Falls convention to the ratification of the 19th Amendment by one vote by the Tennessee legislature in 1920, enshrining women’s suffrage in the U.S. Constitution. In the 1920 presidential election, 8 million more women were able to vote.

In her opening remarks at the panel discussion, ABA President-Elect Judy Perry Martinez called the passage a “critical milestone for our democracy.”

To mark next year’s 100th anniversary, the ABA Commission on the 19th Amendment, chaired by Judge M. Margaret McKeown of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, has planned a range of activities, including several conferences around the country and five exhibits on the suffrage movement that will tour the country.

In the six-person panel discussion, Daniel Ortiz – law professor and director of the University of Virginia Law School’s Supreme Court Litigation Clinic – pointed out that while the 19th Amendment “represented a kind of culture moment,” it has generated little case law and is generally not taught in law schools.

Judge Bernice B. Donald of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals quickly pivoted to voting rights, remarking that women of color did not get a full franchise to vote following passage of the 19th Amendment, and that it took almost 50 years to do so with the enactment of the Civil Rights Act.

Further, she said, members of the African American community, disproportionally caught up in the criminal justice system, are foreclosed from fully participating in democracy because ex-felons in many states are barred by law from voting. “That’s a problem that I think all people should be concerned with.”

Camille Gear Rich, professor of law and sociology at the USC Gould School of Law, added that women of color are disproportionally charged with voter fraud and given harsh prison terms, citing the case of a Texas woman who mistakenly voted despite not qualifying and was given an eight-year prison sentence.

Primary sponsors of the event were the ABA 19th Amendment Commission and the ABA Section of State and Local Government Law. A dozen ABA entities were co-sponsors.

Harmeet Dhillon, founder of the Dhillon Law Group and national committeewoman of the California Republican National Committee, said that while the Republican party played a leading role in passage of the 19th Amendment, “my party has really fallen behind” when it comes to women in elective office, she said, pointing to the mere 13 Republican women serving in the House of Representatives.

She also 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 added that women of color face “double the burden.”

Williams brought up the increasing number of states that require IDs to vote and are imposing additional requirements. Ortiz noted that there is little research that voter ID laws decrease the vote but also little evidence of widespread voter fraud. Restrictions on voting extend far beyond requiring voter IDs, such as changing polling hours and limiting early voting, he said.

“I’m a big fan of voter ID,” responded Dhillon, but added that states should provide IDs for free.

Donald pointed out the legacy of the 19th Amendment. “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,” she 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.”