IA Law Review: Constitutional Interpretation (19th Amendment)

Image courtesy of Britannica.

By Vynateya Purimetla (’21)

As the anniversary of the 19th amendment approaches, the right to vote remains as pertinent in our civic landscape as ever. Throughout United States history, voting rights have expanded from simply land-owning white men in 1776 to all law-abiding citizens over 18. Although the law has expanded to remove explicit discrimination, through measures like voter suppression and gerrymandering, systematic obstacles still persist. Though a lot of ground has been covered in the voting rights movement, there is yet more to cover to achieve the constitutional promise for all.

Although African-Americans gained the right to vote with the passage of the 15th amendment, systemic barriers still disenfranchise them to this day. Local Jim Crow laws established in the late 1800’s introduced hurdles like literary tests, poll taxes, and grandfather laws specifically designed to suppress African-American votes. Although the Voting Rights Act of 1965 intended to stop this, its positive implications were stunted by Oregon v. Mitchell. This suppression, rooted deeply, continues to this day. With gerrymandered districts designed to minimize the impact of African-American votes and poll closures in majority African-American districts, voter suppression is strongly present. Ironically, though, initiatives to stop gerrymandering and provide fairer elections can only be achieved through voting. So, although the 15th amendment theoretically allows African-Americans the right to vote, in practice, deeply-entrenched barriers still unfortunately exist. Therefore, it is more important than ever to cherish the right to vote and help grant it to others.

Similar to the 15th amendment, women’s voting rights were fiercely contested during their infancy. In 1872, for example, when Susan B. Anthony attempted to vote, United States v. Anthony was filed against her. Even after the arduous battle for the 19th amendment was won, states still refused to allow women to vote because of their deep sexist prejudices at the time. In Leser v. Garret, Maryland tried to argue that suffrage infringed states’ rights while in Fairchild v. Hughes, a citizen of New York claimed it violated men’s rights. Though thankfully lessened, some of these dangerous prejudices still continue on. Even today, groups against women’s rights call for the abolishment of the 19th amendment and local bills have been brought up to further this agenda. Many more systemic barriers -that have only been valiantly pushed down with consistent protest and petition- still persist. Asian-Americans, for example, did not receive the right to vote till 1952 until the McCarran-Walter Act was passed. Although the 23rd amendment gave District of Columbia residents the right to vote in a Presidential election, they have no say in Congressional representation still. Only in 1971, following the Vietnam War, was the age restriction lowered to 18, with the rationale that soldiers old enough to fight were old enough to vote.

More entrenched institutions, like the electoral college, unfairly allow swing votes in Ohio and Florida to matter more than a California or Texas vote in a Presidential election. For a Senate race, citizens of densely-populated states have less impactful votes than less-populated states when it comes to electing their federal representation. These too are examples of disenfranchisement as one vote does not necessarily translate to one voice and voters in key swing states are given too much power in influencing election outcomes.

All of this to say that although the right to vote is guaranteed to all on paper, in practice it is still limited. Thankfully, voting rights have expanded to include more demographics and grant the constitutional promise of voting for all. Nevertheless, with recent partisan gerrymandering and voter suppression, it seems that the voting rights battle is moving backwards rather than forwards. These monumental rights have only been achieved with consistent and steady protesters from civil rights champions like Thurgood Marshall to brave suffragists like Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth. Therefore, the right to vote is as pivotal as ever.  Therefore, the right to vote is still important. To honor the bold efforts of trailblazers before and to continue progressing forward. To advocate for just causes and uphold Constitutional principles. To counter the persistent historical challenges faced by marginalized groups. To materialize the fundamental principles of our Republic- one vote, one voice.

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