Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States The ratification of the 19th amendment in August of was a pivotal moment, the culmination of a more than year struggle to gain voting rights for women. But what happened after ratification? In order to translate this new right into actual votes by women, local and state governments, political parties, advocacy groups, and individual women needed to learn how to navigate a new legal order.
For women, winning the vote gave way to a long-term effort to overcome social norms that discouraged participation and lack of experience with voting itself.
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Parties and interest groups with a long history reaching out to and mobilizing male voters had to learn what, if any, wo,en in strategies or appeals would be required to reach women. State and local governments had to add staff, resources, and equipment to accommodate the influx of new voters, in general and in time for the November presidential election only three months removed from the ratification.
The initial verdict and much of the early scholarship concluded that woman suffrage was a failure, as turnout was low and the addition of women voters failed to shake up the two-party balance of power. The incorporation of women as full equals in the electoral process would take decades, and understanding why this is the case helps us better understand the challenges facing efforts to make voting rights a reality for traditionally marginalized groups.
The ratification of said [Nineteenth amendment placed additional burden upon this department … The time outside registration in wards was extended by direction of the Mayor … 3 evenings before the presidential election, and 2 additional registrars were added to each ward registration place. Ten additional registrars were employed in the central office … [for] many days and evenings for this registration.
Constitution itself is famously silent on the issue of voting rights; the framers did not expect most people to vote and left the practice of elections almost entirely to the states. Connecticut and other states also automatically rolled women registered for school elections permitted by a of states prior to over to general election lists. In another example of accommodation, the Quincy MA City Council voted in special session to hold primaries in the smaller precincts, rather than wards, to accommodate the expected influx of women voters in Not all states chose to be so accommodating of new women voters.
In the most extreme examples—Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina—women were prohibited from voting in the presidential election because ratification in August took place after deadlines to register or pay poll taxes. Black women in the South were particular targets. In Richmond, Virginia, for example, black and white women seeking to register to vote in advance of the presidential election overwhelmed registration offices.
The city responded by appointing three additional deputies for white women, but multiple requests to make similar accommodations for black women were ignored. The result was a long line of black women outside registration offices, due to both the small of registrars and the more frequent challenges to the black woman vote. Even states that accommodated women often had restrictive election laws that created barriers for women.
Despite extending registration opportunities for women, both Connecticut and Virignia required a literacy test.
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Massachusetts added a poll tax, while Connecticut piled on a morals clause and a long residency requirement. If the state does not mobilize, who does?
Not surprisingly, suffrage advocates were eager to meet this need. Suffragists reached out to the mayor of Bridgeport the day the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified. The leading national suffrage organization, the National American Ricmond Suffrage Association NAWSAvoted in to dissolve their organization when the fight was won, and to create a new organization, the League of Women Voters, to continue their work on behalf of a political voice for women.
For the most part, actual GOTV work was the province of state and local party organizations. Efforts led by parties and interested groups sought to mobilize only those women most likely to support the party, interest, or group.
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What happened? While states now maintain records of who votes in which elections, in the s this type of information was either not recorded, not preserved, or did not Blacl the sex of the voter. Today we also track who votes through exit polls and public opinion surveys, but those tools either did not exist or were not reliable in the s. We figured out what proportion of women and men voted using a statistical tool known as ecological inference.
Ecological inference lets us combine information from the U. Yet, offsetting this to some extent has been the fact that women have generally stayed in the kitchen in unhealthy s on Election Day.
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Vjrginia it took decades for the gap between men and women to fully close, today women are more likely to vote than men. Data collected as part of a long-running survey of American voters reveals how the gap slowly closed after Figure 2. Figure 2. Today, women are as or more likely to vote than men American National Election Studies, Where did women vote and where did women stay home?
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If women are not inherently or always less likely to turn out than men, why do we observe such a large gender gap in the first few elections after suffrage was extended? Whether women voted appears to be more a function of where they lived, and the electoral institutions within which they could exercise their right to vote i. Figure 3 reports our estimates of turnout in ten US states. Figure 3.
States with more voting restrictions especially Virginia, Massachusetts, and Connecticut had considerably lower turnout overall, but especially among women. In states where political competition was high Missouri and Kentuckyparties and other organizations had the incentive and presumably the resources to engage in more extensive voter mobilization. For this and other reasons salience, excitement, stakesturnout was higher in those states, and again, particularly among women.
Because states do not have a responsibility to ensure that citizens vote, mobilization is a function of individual capacity to negotiate regulations and barriers as well as the incentives for non-state institutions to mobilize voters when they perceive the need and then among those from whom they expect support.
A consequence is that women living in some states were far more likely to convert their right to ballots than were women in other states. Women of color faced additional challenges Well after the formal incorporation of women in the s, ckty presence of state and other barriers to voting created particular burdens for women of color.
State restrictions on voting in the South were deed explicitly to block black voters from the polls. When state action fails to affirmatively support a right to vote, parties and citizen organizations often step into the breach.
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In the South, however, the dominant Democratic political party viewed its interests as best served by engaging in extensive and violent efforts to block or slow black voter mobilization. Self-reported turnout of whites and minorities is very similar today, but entirely closing the gap took decades see Figure 4.
Unlike the Nineteenth Amendment, the Voting Rights Act put the onus on state governments to meet certain standards for electoral participation, with woen for evaluation and enforcement. Yet even in the Voting Rights Act, provisions largely focused on stopping state action that created barriers to voting, rather than requiring states to take affirmative steps to facilitate voter registration or turnout.
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Figure 4. Minority turnout lags white considerably beforebut racial differences in turnout are very small by ANES, Mobilizing traditionally-excluded groups requires resources Virgini time That voter mobilization in the U. The newly-created League of Women Voters had virtually no experience with voter mobilization and their energies were divided between GOTV efforts and the work of studying, recommending, and advocating for policy proposals. In comparison, political parties, labor unions, and other male-dominated organizations already had extensive experience with voter mobilization.
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This is particularly a problem in the states that made voting more difficult. When political, labor, and civic organizations and activists did devote energy to challenge state policies that discourage turnout and mobilizing their members in elections, this necessarily meant and means! This dynamic remains important today as groups or individuals respond to efforts by some states to ramp up ID requirements or resist efforts to permit mail-in or early in-person voting.
Newly-enfranchised and marginalized Vitginia face a long-term struggle to convert voting rights into political equality in the absence of an affirmative right to vote and in the presence of additional burdens on potential voters—the poor were confronted with the poll tax, African-Americans in the South were met with state-sanctioned violence, and immigrants and people of color Viirginia required to pass Richkond tests.
All of these burdens hampered women in particular. Families faced with a poll tax tended to prioritize male voting, physical risks dissuaded the most vulnerable, and immigrant women had fewer opportunities to learn English. Voting may be an individual responsibility, but the actions of parties and other organizations make a big difference in getting Americans to the polls. And that mobilization is most likely to happen in places where party competition is close—precisely the kinds of contests that are again increasingly scarce in U.
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Further, laws that make it harder to vote weigh most heavily on those people who are already marginalized. Rather than asking if potential voters—women in or other groups today—are failing to fulfill their civic responsibilities, we might do fot to ask if the political system is failing its citizens. Christina Wolbrecht is a professor of political science at University of Notre Dame. ABA Resources.