One of the most precious rights that we have in the United States is the right to vote. Because this is a presidential election year, we are acutely aware of how important it is for each one of us to exercise our constitutional right. In Iowa, the restoration of felony rights has become an important issue. Our Iowa Constitution says that “anyone convicted of a felony permanently loses the right to vote or hold public office unless the Governor restores those rights.” Because a permanent fix for this issue will require an amendment to the Constitution and will take time, Governor Kim Reynolds recently signed Executive Order 7. I am grateful to Governor Reynolds because this order restores voting rights to thousands of Iowans who have been convicted of a felony and have completed their sentence.
At the same time as I ponder the privilege of living in a democracy where all registered voters have the responsibility to participate in elections, I also lament the ugliness of our national, state, and local campaigns. I have decided to mute all political TV commercials leading up to the election. That’s because my heart breaks at the nasty and corrosive advertisements that both parties use, including outright lying and slander, to denigrate the credibility and integrity of other candidates.
What continually restores my hope, however, is the knowledge that our democracy is founded on the worth and dignity of all people and that countless individuals have worked diligently over the last several hundred years to gain and ensure the right for all Americans to vote. It’s especially important to recognize that 2020 is the 100th anniversary of the right of women in America to vote. As I regularly send letters and cards to those with pastoral needs, I am now using stamps that celebrate the right for women to vote that was passed in 1919 and ratified by all the states in 1920.
On April 9, 1865, the four-year Civil War in the United States ended. A month later, reformer and abolitionist Frederick Douglass said, “Slavery is not abolished until the Black man has the ballot.”
On December 19, 1865, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was passed. This amendment abolished all involuntary servitude, except in the case of punishment for a crime of which that person has been convicted. On June 13, 1866, Congress passed the 14th Amendment, which extended to former slaves all liberties and rights granted by the Bill of Rights. And in 1870, the 15th Amendment to the Constitution passed, ensuring that the right to vote “shall not be denied…on account of race.”
However, only men were given the right to vote, not women. It’s also important to note that, even though the face of the south changed after the Civil War and there was greater freedom for African-Americans to move, organize, and improve their conditions, the voting rights of African-American men continued to be threatened because of intimidation, poll taxes, and violence.
I can only imagine how crushed crusaders such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton felt when the 15th amendment did not specifically include women. They had begun a movement years before, in 1848, when the first women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York. Women all over the country lobbied, picketed, and fought for their rights, especially the right to vote. At the same time, it was messy. Some men were dead set against women voting, and even some of the women were not on board. But those advocating for equality in voting would not be stopped.
On May 21, 1919, the U.S. House of Representatives finally approved the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote. Two weeks later, the U.S. Senate followed suit and the 19th Amendment then moved to the states for ratification. 3/4 of the states (48 at the time) had to ratify the 19th Amendment in order for it to become part of the Constitution. By a vote of 50-47, Tennessee became the last state needed to ratify the 19th Amendment on August 18, 1920. This was the largest expansion of democratic voting rights in our country’s history.
The amount of lobbying, picketing, negotiating, and marching went that on for 72 years between 1848 and 1920 was incredible, and I often wonder what my two grandmothers would have thought about the women’s suffrage movement. They were born in 1891 and 1892, with one living a quiet life as a mother and grandmother coming from the Church of the Brethren tradition where she wore a prayer cap and plain clothes. Would she have dared to vote when she came of age? I suspect not. My other grandmother grew up in what was known as the Old Mennonite Church, but she was always a maverick and would not conform to the strict rules of her denomination. Would she have dared to vote when she came of age? I think so.
But that wasn’t all. Even though women, as well as men, had the right to vote, African-American men and women were forced to overcome many obstacles to actually be able to vote. These obstacles included literacy tests as well as harassment and threats at the polls. As a result, many African-Americans did not even register to vote, fearful for their safety.
In 1964, numerous demonstrations were held, and the resulting violence brought renewed attention to the issue of voting rights. That violence included the murder of voting-rights activists in Mississippi as well as attacks on peaceful marchers in Selma, Alabama by state troopers.
Finally, on August 5, 1965. President Lyndon Johnson signed legislation that would make it illegal to demand literacy tests and would provide federal examiners with the authority to register qualified citizens to vote. The law had an immediate and positive impact. 250,000 new black voters were registered by the end of 1965.
On November 3, many of us will go to socially distanced polls, and many others will vote by mail. No one knows what the results will be in various elections around the country. But we do know this. The polls are open to all eligible voters. And regardless of the nasty and negative ads that will continue to flood the airwaves for the next five weeks, we have the opportunity and responsibility to elect women and men of integrity to lead us into a future of hope.