Today is Women’s Equality Day — commemorating the day in 1920 that the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution — granting women equal voting rights — was certified into law.
But it’s a celebration that comes with some baggage. Women are proud of our suffragette sisters and their history of empowering women to engage in grassroots activism. But for women of color, the reality was that the 19th Amendment did not enable African American women to vote because of the institutional barriers in place at the time.
Jim Crow laws kept most black women and men from voting. It wasn’t until passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 that the right to vote was extended to all adult citizens.
But today, those rights are under siege. That’s why for me, Women’s Equality Day is a reminder that we must protect women, particularly women of color, from the onslaught of voter suppression laws that can tilt the balance of elections.
And it’s also a call to action, spurring me on to make the midterm elections a turning point in the ongoing struggle for voting rights.
Our democracy is being hijacked by voter restriction techniques that disproportionately impact young people, the elderly, low-income individuals and especially people of color—and within each of these communities, women are most harshly affected.
It’s an outrage that that women, who fought so hard for suffrage and particularly women of color, who were the last to secure that right, could now be the first to lose it.
A Leadership Conference Education Fund study found that people of color in states with a history of voting discrimination had fewer places to vote in 2016. In North Carolina, for example, 40 counties with large black communities had 158 fewer early polling places where they could cast their votes.
And strict voter ID laws disproportionately burden voters of color. Under some states’ restrictive voter ID laws, individuals must have a state-issued photo ID that matches the name on their voter registration cards. This requirement is inherently discriminatory towards women.
According to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice, a third of all women have citizenship documents that do not match their current legal name, often due to marriage or divorce.
Also, for women in the low-wage workforce — approximately two thirds of whom are women of color — the time and cost of obtaining a photo ID can be prohibitive.
The result is that women are being kept from voting on the issues that matter most to them—like equal pay for equal work, access to reproductive care, gender equality and racial justice.
So, how do we achieve genuine, meaningful equality? In order to protect our voting rights, we must exercise those rights —and end the scourge of voter suppression that limits them.
Voter suppression laws exist because politicians are afraid of facing the voters. The conservative Republicans who control state legislatures know that the majority of voting-eligible people in the U.S. disagree with the right wing’s anti-woman, anti-social justice agenda.
Faced with elections that are growing increasingly competitive, these politicians have another solution — choose their own electorate.
Research published in the Washington Post found that when strict voter ID laws are instituted, the turnout gap between Republicans and Democrats in primaries more than doubles from 4.3 points to 9.8 points. Similarly, the turnout gap between conservatives and liberals more than doubles from 7.7 to 20.4 points.
The fact is that the right to vote is on increasingly shaky ground. For too many people, it’s a right in name only. The burdens placed in their way make even trying to vote too onerous.
Let’s resolve to change this equation. That’s the best way to mark Women’s Equality Day. We need to stop states from passing restrictive and discriminatory voter ID laws, and make voting rights a voting issue in the next election.
Toni Van Pelt is the president of the National Organization for Women (NOW).