Rosanell Eaton, age 92, was one of the first African-Americans to vote in North Carolina -- even as the state tried its best to stop her. When she reached the age of eligibility back in the 1940s, as a prerequisite for registering to vote (reserved only for African-Americans), Eaton was forced to recite the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. She passed this literacy test with flying colors. From that day forward, she worked to help other members of her community register and vote, even in the face of crosses burned on her front lawn and gunshots fired below her bedroom window as menacing retaliation for her faithful efforts to expand the franchise.
Despite having voted for more than 70 years, through unimaginable obstacles, under North Carolina's new voting law Eaton may be denied this basic right for the first time in her life. The expansive measure, signed by Gov. Pat McCrory earlier this month, cuts a week from early voting, eliminates same-day voter registration, creates a strict photo ID requirement, expands the ability to challenge voters, and prohibits counties from extending poll hours by one hour in response to long lines, among other sweeping provisions.
Eaton, who was born at home, may be unable to secure the renewed photo ID required for voting. She has a North Carolina driver's license, but the name on her certified birth certificate does not match the name on her driver's license or the name on her voter registration card -- which will disqualify her from obtaining the ID card she needs under the new law.
As we commemorate Women's Equality Day, marking the passage of the 19th Amendment which granted women the right to vote in all elections, I am reminded of the empowered struggle for women's right to vote. It is also a day to reflect on the continued struggle of pioneering women like Ms. Eaton and the work that still must be done to ensure that fundamental right.
Women's suffrage has been in our Constitution for 93 years, for Eaton's entire life, and it was a hard-fought battle. Suffragists utilized tactics of constant agitation such as picketing, marching and staging other public demonstrations, willing to be arrested and jailed for the movement. Their acts of civil disobedience even carried over to jail, in the form of hunger strikes and brutal force feedings by authorities -- shocking the nation and building support for their cause. This public pressure led to congressional approval of the 19th Amendment, with its formal adoption into the Constitution occurring on August 26, 1920.
Yet, on this anniversary, in the midst of escalating attacks on women's rights, the current fight to protect our vote is clearly important and must be part of any women's agenda. Despite the negative press and litigation victories against the wave of restrictive voting policies that preceded the 2012 election, legislatures are continuing to introduce and pass them. Especially in light of the Supreme Court's decision in Shelby County v. Holder in June -- striking down the coverage formula for Section 5 and no longer requiring states with the worst records of voter discrimination to submit voting changes for federal review -- lawmakers have acted, with remarkable speed, to push through new restrictions. This includes North Carolina's aforementioned kitchen-sink voter suppression law; plans to immediately implement voter ID laws in Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia, Arkansas and South Carolina; and Florida's continuation of its once-abandoned voter purge initiative. In this post-Shelby landscape, we expect to see even more in the coming weeks and months.
This continues to happen because there is no provision in the Constitution that guarantees all citizens the right to vote. While the Constitution forbids voting from being abridged based on race, gender, age or ability to pay a poll tax, nowhere does it contain affirmative language that makes the right to vote explicit. In fact, out of the 119 democratic countries in the world, the United States is one of only 11 that does not definitively guarantee the right to vote in their Constitutions. Consequently, the most basic element of our democracy is left at the mercy of state and local officials who can manipulate election rules for their own advantage.
The only way to guarantee that every citizen can exercise a right to free, fair and accessible elections is to have national standards for everyone. That will take enshrining the explicit, affirmative right to vote for all citizens in the Constitution. Our fight to defeat restrictive voting laws remains vitally important, and Advancement Project and partners will persist in combatting these measures. But as legislators become more emboldened to ram through bills that threaten our democracy and undermine equality, we must also take up more proactive, comprehensive remedies. We need a constitutional amendment to ensure that every eligible American -- regardless of their race, age, gender or where they live -- enjoys a fundamental right to vote.