Suffering for Suffrage

The first successes in American women’s efforts to secure voting rights were out West, in states that had a surplus of men and wanted to attract more women. And maybe Westerners were more independent in their thinking. First was the Territory of Wyoming in 1869, followed by Utah, Colorado, Idaho, Washington State, California, Oregon, and Arizona. Altogether, nineteen states had universal suffrage before 1920 when the 19th Amendment made it federal law. This map from Wikipedia shows which ones:,_1920.svg 

The powers-that-be in other states proved more intransigent. Conservative women organized against the woman’s vote. After World War I began, some of the public thought that demonstrating for suffrage was unpatriotic, and police were more likely to use brutal tactics. Suffragists, following leaders such as Alice Paul in America and Emmeline Pankhurst in Britain, suffered imprisonment and abuse—force-feedings, rat-infested cells, beatings—because of their demonstrations to gain the vote. Two films about this early 20th century period are Iron Jawed Angels (U.S., 2004) and Suffragette (UK, 2015) 

American women’s determined attempts to gain the vote are part of an even larger and longer struggle across the world for all adults to participate in their governments. In 1800, almost every country was ruled from the top down. In some countries local governments operated by direct democracy, but voting was limited to property owners. 

Women’s rights advanced by fits and starts. As far back as 1689, women of Friesland who owned land in rural districts could vote in local elections. Sweden kept changing its mind about this issue, allowing female landowners to vote in rural elections from 1734 on, although their right to vote in local city elections and national elections was rescinded after a generation or two.

When the USA began, most states allowed only white, male property owners to vote. After leaving out women, slaves, indentured servants, and men without property, about six percent of the population remained to cast a ballot. The British electoral system was even more unrepresentative, with about 3% of the total population entitled to elect parliament. 

By mid-19th century America, state after state had extended the franchise to white men without property. This made the United States somewhat more representative than ancient Athens, which also left out women and slaves but had a much higher proportion of slaves and many non-citizen resident foreigners who couldn’t vote. Despite the 15th Amendment, former slaves and their descendants did not get full voting rights until the Voting Rights Act was signed into law in 1965. Even now, circuitous ways are used to stifle the Black vote.

In Britain, Reform bills gave the vote to male householders in the late 19th century and finally to all its working-class men in 1918, since so many of them were fighting and dying for their country in World War I. At the same time, some women over age 30 or who met certain property qualifications were allowed to vote. Only in 1928 did all British women get the franchise.

Switzerland became the first country to introduce universal male suffrage (1848) although one of the last to give women the vote (1971). In 1893, New Zealand was the first country to extend voting rights to all women. Finland in 1906 was the first to implement full voting rights for women including the right to run for office, and in 1907, 19 women were elected to the Finnish parliament.

Women’s suffrage seems pretty solid in the United States. More women are running for high office in 2018 than ever before. Not even the farthest right wing is trying to repeal the 19th Amendment. A large swathe of the world is not so fortunate. Even though the last holdout, Saudi Arabia, finally allowed females at the polls in 2015, there are many countries in Africa, the Mideast, and Asia where it is extremely difficult for women to vote, no matter what it says on paper.

Today in the USA it is everybody’s voting rights that are threatened in new and old ways. People can be misled and confused by clever propaganda, they can be prevented from voting, or the vote they cast may not be counted.

 Computer experts point out how easy it is to manipulate electronic voting machines, especially those that count the votes.   Indications are that this kind of election fraud has occurred several times since 1996 in Senatorial and Presidential elections, and possibly in the 2016 Democratic Primary.   Ohio, a swing state, is one with irregularities in the past.     Five states and many local districts use e-voting without a paper trail.

Electoral machinations don’t require Russians, although Putin’s minions undoubtedly added to the mess in 2016. Last year the whistleblower Reality Winner, an Air Force veteran with a top-secret security clearance, saw evidence that the Russians had been more successful in hacking our voting system than federal officials admitted. She sent her evidence to the media in order to alert election officials. This service earned her the longest prison sentence ever imposed on a whistle blower in America.

Voter suppression is less dramatic than hacking but just as effectively skewing elections. This is the burgeoning effort to prevent (certain) people from voting in the first place. The Brennan Center for Justice found that voter purges are increasing rapidly, and they are based on inaccurate sources such as CrossCheck. Purges are necessary but the report notes that “There’s a big difference between proper list maintenance and the error-prone mass-removal of eligible voters from the rolls” to the tune of 4 or 5 million people who are thus disenfranchised.  

Several other methods are used to suppress voting and to disrupt elections, such as requiring unnecessary voter ID or limiting the number of voting machines sent to certain precincts so would-be voters have to wait in line for hours. Internationally, our voting system is ranked the lowest of all established democracies and 47th overall. 

Women and minorities fought to get the vote, and now we all need to fight to keep it. Some states are returning to a paper ballot. Here are other ideas for improving the voting process:  and some organizations that help with greater representation:

What do you think our major focus should be in order to clean up the voting process in America?