Justice  /  Argument

What Right to Vote? There’s a Lie at the Heart of American Democracy

The centennial of women’s suffrage which guaranteed all women the right to vote — has a lie at its very core.

The lie at the heart of the suffrage centennial compounds a much broader lie, at the heart of American democracy: Women never won the right to vote — not in 1920, not ever — because even today no U.S. citizen has a federally guaranteed right to vote. A century later, we’re not there yet. We have work to do. We desperately need a new voting rights movement for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing every American’s right to vote.

When asked what the most basic right of citizenship is, most Americans will answer “the vote.” But the founders decided to pass on that. The right to vote isn’t in the Constitution, and it isn’t in the Bill of Rights. The United States is one of the few constitutional democracies that has yet to enshrine this fundamental right in its founding charter, despite more than two centuries of activism on this very point.

This matters right now, because although this centennial suggests the fight is over, tens of millions of Americans, women included, are having their votes stolen from them. Since 2013, Republican politicians have unleashed a massive campaign of voter suppression unseen in this nation since before the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

What social activists — from women’s suffragists to civil rights advocates — have won is not the right to vote. Rather, they won the elimination of certain state restrictions. This has expanded the electorate considerably, but it has left the states, who the Constitution puts in charge of voting, free to dream up new ways to block voting, shrinking it once again, which is where we are now.

Creating a constitutional right to vote for citizens, as is on the books in many democracies, would finally stop this endless cycle of expansion and theft.

Consider how this cycle has unfolded across time. While Framers passed on saying who got to vote, they gave this power to states. That’s the key point here: States make laws about who can vote. And in the absence of a right to vote, they are free, to deny voting to state residents, on almost limitless grounds. States at the founding drew up long lists of voting requirements that included property holding, residency, age, race, sex, and more. By the 1820s and 1830s, all states, for example, required that voters be, among other things, “white” and “male.”